How to be successful as a product manager? What makes strong product teams? How to get started with product management? I hear these questions a lot from junior product managers or folks who are interested to move to product management. Throughout my 17 years of product management career I was lucky to work with and learn from some of the most talented product managers and great minds. In this post I will share with you the top 5 lessons I learned from these great product leaders and share some tips that you can apply right now to get ahead in your product management career.
If you are new to product management and want the short version of product management role, here it is; my own version of it, anyway. Product Management is the glue within an organization. The product manager is responsible for the overall success of the product; she is the CEO of her product. The product manager leads cross-functional teams to deliver value to customers; this is why I compared her role to the glue connecting and holding these different teams leading them from product vision, conception, design, and development, all the way to a successful product launch.
Product Managers are in a unique position, they have full responsibility for the success of the product, yet they don’t have full control over the process or teams that contribute to that success. This is why to be a good product manager you must maneuver through these complexities by learning and improving on many skills and be a leader to motivate these teams without direct control. As a young product manager, I was able to learn from these experienced product managers, which led to great improvements quickly. I learned them from observing successful product managers repeatedly deliver great products and lead their organizations to great successes.
Top 5 lessons learned from experienced product managers
Every organization is different, products are also different; product managers’ skills, background, and styles are not the same neither. However, successful product managers focus on common aspects and practices of their job, they also apply similar approaches in similar situations regardless of the product they manage or the organization they are in. I learned that great product leaders have a toolkit and apply one or few tools in similar situations. These are the top 5 lessons learned from experienced product managers that you can apply today in order to improve your product management career.
Successful product managers:
- Are more market and customer experts than they are product experts
- Visionaries, yet focus on execution
- Align teams, and keep the process flowing
- Value feedback over intuition
- Are open to failure
1. Great product managers are more market and customer experts than they are product experts
Product managers with startup or technical background are comfortable with the technology and architecture aspects of their product, this is their strong suit. So, they try to stick to their strength and use their product expertise to influence teams, foresee the future and evolve the product. While this is rewarding and comfortable, it is not the best way to manage your product and evolve your product management career. This is why:
- Using product expertise to influence teams can get you only so far with technical and dev teams as they respect your knowledge about what to do and sometimes how to do it. However, customer-facing teams and even some technical teams very quickly start asking why are we doing A vs. B? Especially management, the first question they ask is why are we focusing on this vs. that? Now, answering the why requires market knowledge and a good understanding of customers’ wants users’ needs.
- Technical and product knowledge alone can’t take you to the future. Building a good roadmap and winning the future belongs to those who understand users, monitor their competition and follow their market dynamics. What you know about users today might not be true tomorrow, so you always need to have a pulse on your customers and users and build a process to have a continuous feedback system.
- Evolving the product and successfully deliver value requires product managers to prioritize like a ninja. This can’t happen without having processes and tools to identify what to focus on. Once identified, product managers need to back their prioritization with data.
In short product managers need to be experts on their users, customers, competitors, market segments and their products. If one of these elements is weak, it quickly reflects on the next iterations of the product, which in turns impacts success on the market.
2. Successful product managers are visionaries, yet focused on execution
If you pay attention to great leaders, CEOs, Politicians or even good managers, you will immediately see that they have a vision that guides them. They inspire people to follow them, and they motivate them to action in order to deliver on their vision.
- Visionary leaders have a compelling vision for their business, future or idea; they can see beyond the ambiguity and challenges of today to a better picture of tomorrow. But that’s not enough, successful leaders are good communicators, they know how to verbalize their dreams and goals and can explain to their teams; Fueled by inspirations, their organizations chart their course to this new future based on their vision. They are also active listeners who captivate their audience, learn from them and power their vision with what they learn from their environment.
- Having a vision is not enough, for it to translate to success it requires the following:
- A vision needs to be grounded in a good understanding of the macro-dynamics impacting this vision, i.e. market, competition and behavior trends that might impact the vision.
- It needs to be backed by facts, trends and data from their product, usage, or other data that feed their intuition.
- A vision is like the sparkle that ignites the fire, it needs firewood from multiple contributors and teams to stay lit. So successful visions are often the result of teams rather than a single player, even if it started by the founder or the visionary and championed by her.
- Having a vision is different from having hopes or dreams, visionary leaders are quick to chart a way to execute on their vision. They are focused on execution like ninjas.
Successful product managers are visionaries with a strong bias towards execution. You can very quickly identify this talent when you meet with experienced product managers, who halfway through the meeting already establish what needs to be done and start asking execution questions, e.g. who will be owning this? When can this be done? Which team needs to do this thing in order for that to happen? They have a very clear process in their mind as if they’ve done it before. Well, they did many times in their head.
Being focused on execution is different from micro-management or getting into the weeds. It is rather charting a clear path for success and making sure you have the right milestones and steps to get there, but most importantly, identifying who will own each step, task or milestone and getting an agreement on that.
3. Experienced product managers Align teams, and keep the process flowing
Have you been in an organization where nothing gets done? Where politics make running everything in slow Mo? Well, this is not unique to large organizations only; in fact, I would argue that larger organizations have clearly defined teams, roles and responsibilities, the friction and delays come from who owns what and how to prioritize within each team in order to align the pieces together. In contrast, smaller organizations, while they are nimble, and generally quicker to reach an agreement, they don’t have established processes. This translates sometimes to redundant work, missed pieces and even rework in some cases.
Regardless of the kind of organization, and problems faced, experienced product managers develop this unique skill of influencing organizations and teams without direct management and control relationship. So how do they do it?
It starts with a clear vision
Experienced product managers use their leadership skills and relationship building talent to evangelize their vision and plans internally. They treat internal stakeholders like external customers and put all efforts to get internal buy-in before they reach outside the organization.
They back their vision and plan with data
All product managers know that their opinion no matter how pertinent, it is an opinion till they have data to back their plan. The amount of data depends on the type and size of initiative. Smaller releases and product enhancements might require few customer calls, while larger projects, new product launches require more structured data gathering initiatives for both qualitative and quantitative data to back their priorities.
They build consensus and agreement
As product leaders, they own product success, so number one priority for product managers is to keep the ball moving, and to do that, they need to align teams and get agreement on the following:
- Who is the target user or persona we are trying to solve for?
- What is the pain or business outcome we are trying to resolve?
- Why we are solving this problem? This is using market data
- How to solve it? Product managers delegate the “how to” to the experts, dev teams, architects and UX designers.
Once everyone agrees on these initial guiding points, product managers need to establish the path to get there and get agreement on the following:
- How do we incrementally build the solution to get there? This is where Agile framework, SAFe or other frameworks get used to split large initiatives to smaller stories and chunk them to sprints.
- Define releases, when customer-value features will be released to customers. A release involves many teams beyond what you expect, i.e. dev team and QA. Below are some teams that get involved in a release, so product managers needs to align all these teams and get an agreement on resources and timing
- Development team
- Quality assurance QA
- Dev Ops or cloud ops
- Support team
- Customer success
- Sales engineers
- Sales team
- Product marketing
- Project or program management
- Product owners
- Scrum masters
- Professional services
- Partner relations teams
Play the switchboard role
Product managers keep the channel of communication open between all these teams, they work with teams to align dates, adjust milestones, change scope, or split bigger initiatives. This is where you clearly see the execution spirit for experienced managers. They default to execution and implementation, then adjust if needed, rather than wait till they have all data or dwell on analysis paralysis.
4. Product leaders value feedback over intuition
This is obvious, right? Well, not when you are in the middle of the game like we detailed above; the lines tend to blur, the big picture gets fuzzy when you are down in the weeds executing. So experienced product managers establish processes and systems to continuously get feedback throughout the process long before execution time. This helps them to keep focused on execution and without lot of efforts have milestone checks, and continuous feedback channels that they can tap into any time to validate the direction they are heading.
Experienced product managers develop intuition on market needs, users’ wants and the future of their product. However, they know that’s not enough, they need data to back their decisions and prioritization. These are some types of feedback checks that every product manager should consider, of course there are more, but these are not to miss:
- Roadmap feedback
- Concept validation
- UI validation
- Proof of concept
- Early adoption
- Advisory groups
If you have time for only one feedback, I would recommend plotting your roadmap and getting feedback from few trusted customers first before embarking on a long journey to execute your roadmap. I remember when I had a startup for a productivity app, I had big dreams to integrate with Salesforce, show business insights, and merge tasks, opportunities, contacts, and ideas all in one app. I wanted it to be a productivity dashboard for professionals with data and insights from other products. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but What I was doing is narrowing the users base for my app without knowing it. I remembered when I shared my roadmap and vision with few savvy trusted customers and the look on their faces. “Isn’t this a productivity app for anyone to use?” they said, I replied, “yes and I’m planning to make it even better”, I continued “I want to make it the hub of productivity for professionals”. They immediately explained that my app was already getting harder to use and started suffering from features exhaustion.
That session was a hard lesson for me and a turning lesson for the app. We started focusing on experiences and nailing the basics and even making the basics idiot-proof in order to gain more users, rather than going deep and complex. Even without lot of data points, you can tell when you are heading down the wrong direction. However, you need to understand when a trend is forming; you need to go beyond your expert users and ask a varied group. The art of experienced product managers is to combine their vision, market dynamics and users’ feedback. You know the famous quote from Ford, if he was asking “existing users”, they would’ve asked for faster horses. His vision combined with the feedback for speed took the form of an innovation that solved the need, which is building a car.
This is a straightforward step. Imagine you are building an upgrade path for your product; you need to map the path in a diagram and even better if you can design some quick mock-ups and walk through it with users who are the target for upgrades. You always need to focus on the right persona for the feedback you want. You can’t ask admins for novice users’ functionality and vice versa.
The next step in the feedback flow is to have a clickable design that users can walk through or see before you start building and coding. This helps iron out few workflow kinks and ensures that you are building the right level of features and the user knows that to do next. There are many tools to facilitate this process, my favorite is Figma, which is an online fully cloud solution that you can share with users to give you feedback. There more user-feedback oriented solutions that you can use and get access to their panel of users to give you feedback.
Proof of concept
In some cases, concept validation and UI validation are not enough, especially if there are integration points, data validation and process checks. A proof of concept is the right process to validate how your product can integrate with other systems, accomplish a business process or a specific business value. This type of validation doesn’t have to be perfectly looking in terms of UI or have ancillary functions; the purpose is to validate the main integration point or business function and get buy-in from your target audience. This is especially important for validating your core values in a startup. You need to head straight to the core value, integration, or process you are trying to work on without focusing on login, navigation and look & feel first. All these can come later.
This is especially important for B2B solutions and complex solutions. Before launching your solution to the masses, you need to validate further with canary customers, or early adopters. You need friendly customers who can deal with issues, final bugs and who can give you instructive feedback to button-up your solution and then release it to everyone else. This is a bucket for many programs, notably a beta program, alpha, and pilot programs. We will cover these programs on a separate blog.
In addition to these formal steps and actions, product managers should invest in building relationships with their customers to the point that they can pick-up the phone and run a quick idea by few customers, send an email and get a quick validation or send surveys to quantify your intuition or qualitative feedback you received. We will have a dedicated blog for surveys and data collection soon.
In addition to quantitative data, you need a qualitative discussion to understand the why and go beyond the what and when. Advisory groups are the best setting to openly discuss what’s possible, which way we can go and why; you can discuss the pros and cons of options and validate early ideas before even spending lot of time on them. Members of the advisory group should be diversified and represent the segments and regions of your customers.
These were few ideas to show the extent and options for feedback product managers can tap into. Customers and users typically love to give feedback and advise product managers because they want the product they use to succeed, and they can influence the roadmap and suggest solutions and features that will make their lives easier. One important tip to close with, often users suggest solutions; product managers need to drill-down and understand the pain, then select a course of action.
5. Experience product managers are open to failure
You’ve heard the phrase “fail fast”? well, product managers are experts in this area; at least they should be. A good product manager should quickly share solutions to customers and users and get feedback fast. This gives them the ability to quickly change, correct course and adapt to realities.
There are many reasons why products, releases or ideas fail. It is very hard when it happens, but a good product leader should be open to failure, in fact they study failure and try to prevent it early on. If it can’t be prevented, they work hard to reduce the damages. We will have a blog dedicated to why products fail and how to prevent product failure later, but for now let’s explore some reasons why product managers need to deal with failure as a fact of life. Here are some things to consider:
Wrong products or features
No matter how much due diligence we do, sometimes products fails because we did not build the right solution, we overestimated the pain we were trying to solve, or we didn’t build the right thing, even if we built it right.
Wrong user persona
In some cases, we have the right product or solution, but we targeted the wrong user persona and missed the mark. For example, we’ve been working on a reporting module that users loved, but it didn’t sell. After digging deeper, users didn’t see enough value to pay for reporting on their data. The real value was with managers who needed to see aggregate data across all users, our product was weak on aggregation and roll-up of the data. So had to adjust the solution to the right user persona.
Sometimes, you build the right product for the right audience, but something changes that renders your product less valuable or not needed. Imagine if you spent 2 years building a collaboration platform, then MS Teams or Slack hit the market. It will be very hard for any organization to justify investing in your product, unless you offer some unique features that these platforms don’t offer. Timing is very critical.
Experienced product managers should monitor all signs for failure and try to prevent them. However, in the case of inevitable failure, they should be open to it and try to minimize damage. Rather than pushing forward and investing further, they know when to stop, pivot or pull the plug.
Product leaders are made not born. Throughout my career, I worked with many product managers who succeeded and failed, but one thing common to all great product managers is that they learn from both experiences. When they succeed, they take note of what’s working and do more of it; and when they fail, they also take note and try to not repeat the same mistake. To become a great product manager, you need to practice the few concepts we discussed above and follow some of these suggestions including open communication, team building, retain close customer relations, feedback collection and validation, all the way to the willingness and ability to pivot or pull the plug if needed.
At eProduct, we developed a product management solution that culminated learning from all these 17 years and challenges that I and my fellow product managers were facing in managing our products. Check out why we built eProduct.