Antonio van der Weel

@antoniovdw

How to become a better Product Manager

February 15th 2019

Scrum, backlog management, refinement, you probably already know all about these methods, but what makes someone a really good Product Manager?

On a side note: the scrum manual originally uses the term Product Owner, but many companies use the term Product Manager as they fill this position with a broader role that includes stakeholder management.

There are many type of Product Managers. In my years as product manager and coach I’ve met many different and wonderful people in this role, with various backgrounds ranging from UX design to HR. As the market matures, scrum and in-house development have become the standard, and most companies have started to look more critically at the skill set required for Product Management positions. The perfect time to reflect on what makes a good product manager.

Basic product manager skills

As a Product Manager you are the one your team look to, to know what to do. You spend a big part of the day talking to people, getting data insights, and brainstorming ideas with others. While the scrum master of a team is responsible for the team effectiveness, you are responsible for the team working on the right things to reach your goals. Helping the team focus and preparing stories ahead of the sprint to make sure the team’s valuable time isn’t wasted. As a Product Manager you need to:

  • Understand the digital business thoroughly. What are the business model dynamics and how do conversion, marketing costs, ROI and Life Time Value relate to each other? Only then you can create product solutions that truly impact your users and the business.
  • Able to prioritize based on knowledge of the user and business. Which problems and opportunities will have the most impact.
  • Be smart with stakeholder management. While this can be the most frustrating part of the Product Manager role, the bigger the company the more time you need to spend to make clear to every department why your team is prioritizing some things above others. You need to take their input into account when creating a solution, and overall spend enough time communicating with your stakeholders. Being good in explaining and argumenting your decisions can help a lot.
  • Find the right balance between these different elements of your role. You might be working on the most effective product solution, but if you forget to spend time on stakeholder management you can still get in trouble.

Advanced product manager skills

To become a really good Product Manager that can make a difference for your startup or company, you need to go beyond these basics and really excel at the value you add to your team. In my experience to really excel at being a Product Manager you need to:

Become a multi-skilled Product Manager

When you have experience with more relevant fields than just Product Management it helps your effectiveness to great extent. It enables you to understand problems better and to create better solutions. I initially started out as an e-commerce and online marketing specialist, which nowadays gives me so many benefits when working on stories. Every story our team touches already has from the get go a high level of conversion optimization and SEO in mind. Whereas a team with a single-skilled Product Manager would have to involve an external expert, and probably wouldn’t do this during the first couple versions of the product.

Another benefit is to reduce complexity. Every additional team member exponentially increases communication complexity. In my experience the most effective scrum teams have many multidisciplinary members and exist of maximum 5 people.

My suggestion to anyone looking to become a Product Manager would be to start somewhere in a related digital specialist role (e.g. online marketeer, UXer, data analyst) and work your way towards Product Management. This will give you a much stronger knowledge base to build your Product skills upon. One extremely useful skill to have as Product Manager is being able to work with Excel and SQL. This is easy to self-learn with online tutorials to collect data yourself to form hypotheses on how to improve the product. Instead of waiting for the Business Intelligence team to have time for you. Before I started my first Product Manager job at a scale-up with enough data to analyse, I actually bought a book on SQL to learn the basics.

Set a clear product vision together with your UX designer

Creating and communicating a clear product vision is very important for your team and even for your stakeholders. You team needs to be able to answer: “How does this first MVP version relate to our future product vision, and do I need to take this future vision into account when making architecture decisions during development so that we don’t waste too much time while working incrementally?”.

This balance between short incremental improvements and long term vision and scalability is very important and one of the most tricky things to get right as a Product Manager. Work together with your UX designer to create a tangible epic product vision. Use this visualized vision to communicate with your team what the goals and problems to solve are, where the product is headed, and brainstorm together the best MVP approach to launch a first version. This will help to get a lot of buy-in and dedication from the team because they know what the goals are and what they are working towards. Allowing them to make good development decisions.

The bigger your company is the more scrum teams you have to coordinate projects across. Your project might touch parts they are working on. This is why it is so important to communicate your product vision across scrum teams and stakeholders and to get them to buy into your product vision and support it if necessary. Even if you feel you are repeating yourself, keep communicating your vision, because you probably underestimate the need of repetition and time it takes to get understanding. One interesting book on these group dynamics is the book Sapiens. Which describes how in a large group of people the importance of storytelling and myths increase to get the group to move into the same direction.

Be flexible and have technical understanding

While a Product Manager doesn’t need to know how to code, it is a valuable skill to understand system processes and general technical terms. Aka it helps a lot to be a nerd. Especially during a sprint, no matter how well you have prepared a story and created tasks with the team, often developers will find unexpected technical challenges when really touching the code. A team that works together well communicates these discoveries with the Product Manager, and if they are well aware of the goals of the story, they present different options. Sometimes a different technical approach can save half the time while still reaching 95% of your goal. This is why you need to learn how to talk with your team and apply mid-sprint flexibility to adjust the technical approach and still reach your goals within a sprint.

Become a real leader

To grow a great team you need to be a real leader for your team. Even if you aren’t the manager of your team members (usually the CTO or Head of UX is). You still can play a big role in their development as an individual and as a team.

My favourite leadership quote of all time is from The Wire:

“Couple weeks from now, you’re gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it’s about the work, it’ll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that’s the game they’ll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to live down. Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.” — The Wire

I had the luck of working for some great leaders during my career. I want to offer the same approach to my team. Transparency and openness are key to trust within the team. I always transparently share business insights. Even if they are about budget cuts, they will hear it from me first. There are no secrets within our team. Lead by example and don’t be afraid to say when certain behaviour isn’t ok. Show your team how you want to communicate with them, and they will communicate that way with you. Become a leader instead of a corporate manager: asking what you can do for your people, instead of what they can do for you.

Image via https://unsplash.com/@rawpixel

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