The Value of an Experienced PM
What are the attributes of a great Product Manager? That’s a question we recently asked ourselves at Zencity when we were looking to add another PM to the team. Some attributes are a part of a person’s character. Things like curiosity, sharp thinking and a relentless pursuit of truth. Those traits might be developed and enhanced, but for the most part — you either have them or not. Other attributes have to do with the knowledge the person obtained.
Here we’re looking to see if the person is familiar with basic concepts in the holy trinity of Product Management — Business, UX & Tech (bonus points for domain knowledge!). While crucial and absolutely necessary, theoretical knowledge is basically a commodity. Everyone can obtain it fairly quickly by spending some time on the internet (franky, I’m amazed by how many people never read anything other than “The Lean Startup”).
And then there’s experience. It’s such a basic requirement, common in all roles, that we never really stopped to ask ourselves — what is the value of an experienced Product Manager? What advantage does experience give that just can’t be gained by a gifted young PM that reads books and listens to podcasts?
I guess it can be summed up in one word — skills. Cambridge Dictionary defines skill as “an ability
to do an activity
well, especially because you have practised it
”. Experienced PMs advantage is simply that they had past opportunities to hone their skills by practising them.
Fair enough, you might be saying at this point, but what exactly are those skills? What is it a PM needs to actually practice over time to be a great PM? Here are the skills I could think of.
First, the ability to identify risks. While everyone can, and should, read about Marty Cagan’s “Four Big Risks
”, simply reading about it isn’t enough to develop the skill of identifying risks and acting accordingly. Why? Think about it like this, who is more likely to be careful in the decision to get married: The person who read online that the current divorce rate in the U.S. is over 40% or someone that went through an ugly divorce?
As PMs, we get “marriage proposals” every week. Clients and colleagues alike all have great ideas they want us to commit to and it’s our job to have a nose for all the risks involved. Unfortunately, developing a nose for risks usually comes together with the burns we got from ignoring risks in the past.
The second skill is the ability to thoroughly define a problem. There are tons of online resources talking about this ability in many different ways (“Start With Why
”, “Competing Against Luck
”). You can read all of those books and still find yourself rushing to solutions before properly understanding what you’re solving for. Needless to say, your solutions are likely to miss their mark because of this.
Yet, we keep running to solutions. We do so because it’s practically in our nature. We can’t help it. Our monkey-brain is mostly designed for rapid responses and is pushing us towards possible solutions as fast as it can. Ignoring the instinct that burns within us and says “we got this!”, feels weird and unnatural, especially when in a group of talented excited teammates who struggle to solve something. Only after seeing this approach work in real-life and benefiting from it that you develop the required skill for it.
The third skill is working with data. No, I don’t mean writing SQL queries. You can learn that online
fairly easily. Every possible resource online will tell you that when you’re conducting a user interview, you should keep your mouth shut as much as possible. Yet, I guarantee that in your first user interview, you’ll be “leading the witness
” at least once.
We all know that putting words in the user’s mouth is detrimental to the whole process, but we simply can’t help ourselves. The same goes for qualitative data. What happens when you see a chart that you can interpret in two ways, and only one of them matches the opinion you publicly stated in the last All-hands meeting.
We want to be right so bad that it messes with our decision-making ability, whether we acknowledge it or not. We do get better at it though. You’re much less likely to be “leading the witness” in your 50th user interview.
The common denominator of those skills is how counter intuitive they all are. They go against our natural tendencies and have to be developed over time in a long process of engaging with reality’s carrots and sticks. You won’t find those carrots and sticks in podcasts (that you definitely need to listen to!), but you can’t be a truly great PM without them.
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