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Product Management Relationships

Ryan Frederick | September 1st, 2021

There are countless methodologies, processes, and tools for product management. Seemingly, new ones appear every day. The product management toolbox continues to grow, which is a recognition of the importance of the craft and work, but nothing in product management is more important than great relationships.

Product Managers are relationship managers more than they are managers of a product. A product receives the value of a product manager’s relationships, which makes the product better. A product doesn’t facilitate great product management relationships the same way in return. This is a one-way street and value proposition. The better a product manager is at cultivating relationships with other people involved in the product, the better the product will be. The worse a product manager is at relationships, the worse a product will be.

Products are a manifestation of the people creating and evolving them. I’ve written about this previously. But even with a skilled and well-intentioned product manager and team, this doesn’t always equal a great, successful product. The depth, quality, and effectiveness of a product manager’s relationships around a product do.

Product managers are people managers first. The best product managers get this even if they don’t consciously know it. I don't like the typical connotation of managers being applied to product managers because it ignores the fundamental tenets of a product manager being a motivator, leader, and sometimes therapist with their product teams. They might technically manage some of their team members, but it is less about traditional command and control management than it is about working in the product and everyone’s best interest through humility, empathy, and great relationships.

Product managers have a myriad of relationships to manage, and this is a primary reason they need to be great at developing and cultivating these relationships to be successful. Relationships with users, designers, engineers, executives, finance, legal, marketing, partners, and so on are all key to a product manager succeeding, and a product being successful. Stories can get written, sprints can be executed, and roadmaps can get created for unsuccessful products, just as they do for successful ones. The difference between the unsuccessful and successful ones is a product manager’s ability to foster meaningful, positive, and productive relationships with everyone involved. How well a product manager understands and relates to all of the people around a product is really the key to success. The basic blocking and tackling of product management is well understood and documented now. What product managers must focus on and get good at is their relationship skills.

Product managers being great at relationships with all stakeholders around a product isn’t as easy as it sounds. Every person involved with a product brings their own motivations and perspective to their contribution. User relationships aren't the same as another stakeholder group around a product, and not every user relationship is the same either. The best product managers don’t run from the people aspects and complications of creating and managing a product – they embrace them. Product managers who avoid the people dynamics to focus on the processes, systems, and tools will find the other people around a product doing the same thing. This relationship avoidance and apathy eliminates all caring, empathy, and understanding from the product and the people working on it. The best products aren’t created with the best processes and most sophisticated systems – they are created by people who care the most about the problem, the product, and each other.

Product managers should create a relationship matrix for everyone as part of a product. The relationship matrix should include what they know and are learning about each person’s personality, work style, work preferences, motivations, and perspectives. Product managers should be taking notes and updating the matrix through any meaningful interaction they have with someone. They should also have a regimented schedule of when they will touch base with each person around the product outside of regular meetings, calls and standups. Those standard touchpoints can provide some insights and help a product manager to better understand and relate to someone, but won’t go far enough. Product managers need to treat all of their relationships around a product with the same respect and intention as any meaningful relationship in their lives.

Another way to look at this is that successful product mangers learn and leverage the tools and processes to product management and then rise above them to put most of their time and energy into their relationships where less successful product managers approach their craft focused on everything except building those great relationships. Professional product managers focus on the people, amateur product managers focus on the stuff.

Product managers are in the people business more than most are aware of. If you are a product manager and want to be a great one, then learn to be great at relationships.