What Makes a Good Product Manager Great?
Saad Kamal | March 31st, 2020
That’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since I entered the product space. I don’t know how much closer I am to the answer now than I was last year, or the year before that, or the year before that — but I know I’m closer than I was when I started. Something I’ve observed in myself is that, in the absence of formal training for a specific area, I tend to catch myself mimicking behaviors and traits that I admire, or think are the ‘right’ approach. All social creatures do this. Why would I (even at a subconscious level) mimic some product mangers over others? That leads me to the current topic I wanted to share and start a discussion around. What makes a good product manager great? In my opinion, it’s always good to get my biases, preferences, and observations out into the world so there’s a baseline for my (mis)understandings.
Here are some of the traits, based on my observations, that one needs to go from being a good product manager to a great product manager.
There’s an innate curiosity in all of us. We start asking questions before we even understand what we need to ask to get the answer we are looking for. As a product manager, you’re probably all too well aware that you don’t know everything. You can’t know everything. That lack of knowing is the seed to your curiosity. We conduct user interviews, customer surveys, ask a million questions to our business analysts and technical teams. All because we’re curious. Like any 3-year-old, you’ll hear a lot of ‘but, why?’ from great product managers.
Simplify the complex:
Problems that are worth solving are complex. As a species, we’ve addressed a lot of our “low-hanging fruit” problems already. We don’t like getting too wet when it rains so we try using umbrellas, raincoats, hoods, or even the lifesaving manila folder to cover our head when it pours. The really complex stuff is what’s left. A lot of what product management tries to do is take inherently complex problems and try to offer the simplest, most elegant solution in an attempt to solve those problems.
One of our most powerful tools for simplifying the complex is storytelling. A good story has the traditional introduction, rise, antagonist, challenges, protagonist, climax and summary flow that you remember hearing about in grade school. The other thing a good story does is create associations for your audience so the complex world you’ve built in your head is relatable and understandable.
Nothing is a priority if everything is needed yesterday. Sure, we’d love to see our wish list fulfilled for any baby-product we release into the world. That’s obviously just not realistic. Being patient is one thing, but embracing patience is another altogether. A great product manager is patient because they find patience a useful tool for building the best product possible. They allow time to teach them what works and what doesn’t work so they can learn from it.
Scaling your mind-set:
Going from a 10,000 ft view down to in the weeds from one sentence to the next. That’s challenging for anyone, but as a great product manager, you have to do this daily. I’ve found that it’s easier to zoom in from a wider viewpoint than it is to zoom back out after thinking about a specific area of a specific implementation. A great product manager keeps the big picture in mind and asks how their personas would react to the product implementation options in front of them.
In order to know how your target audience will react to a problem, you first need to understand how those people think and feel. After understanding how they think and feel, you need to walk through the solution from within their perspective. That includes their knowledge and their daily constraints. Something specific that I consider important to understand is someone’s ‘friction to change’. If my product fulfilled every possible desire and alleviated every possible pain-point, what’s left to stop them from using my product? Empathizing with their situation helps a great product manager keep their product offerings within the perspective of those who will end up using what they’re trying to build.
Obsession with process and workflow:
In order to define recommendations and priorities for a new product, you need to start by understanding what your audience is currently doing. You need to dig into what it is they do, how they do it and why they do it. By understanding this you’ll be better at building both simplified well-rounded solutions to the problem. Taking someone’s current process and uprooting it causes turbulence, even if it’s more efficient. That turbulence is an obstacle to adoption. By understanding someone’s current workflow, you can map a process that eliminates parts of that workflow at a time so you’re not burdening your customers with a drastic change within their day-to-day routine.
Speaking different ‘languages’:
As a great product manager, you are probably talking to a broad range of people on a given day. You speak with your product analysts, your project managers, your development team, customer support, QA, potential customers, existing customers, and even other product managers. You’re bouncing in and out of different meetings, each discussing different layers of your product(s). The product managers who I’ve seen be really successful are the ones who can talk to each individual in the language they can understand. This obviously takes a lot of time and experience to develop, but at the heart, this is about knowing who you’re talking to and what is important to them. And knowing what’s important to the people you talk to, makes a good product manager a great product manager.
There you have it. I’m sure I’ve skipped, ignored, neglected or abbreviated a lot of the intangibles for being a great product manager (as I see it). I’m curious to hear what everyone else’s’ take is on the matter.
What traits do you think a great product manager should have?