13 tips to become a great product manager

13 tips to become a great product manager 1. Be well-versed in the essentials "Learn how to speak the language," says Mark...

13 tips to become a great product manager

1. Be well-versed in the essentials

"Learn how to speak the language," says Mark Davis, Director of Product Management at Fullstack Academy. You’ll find no shortage of books and articles about the career, but according to Davis, "There are just three books you need to read: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll, and The 4 Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank. These books are revered by product managers at companies like Google and Facebook, and it’s important to understand the concepts in each one. Skip the MBA...read these books instead!"

Related post: Top 7 free and paid product management courses

2. Practice your listening skills

This is a skill you can work on no matter what your current role is: practice listening skills with coworkers, clients, and even off the job with your friends and family.

"One of the most important traits a great product manager has is amazing listening skills," says Nat Kunes, VP Product at AppFolio. "Not just listening to what clients want, but listening with empathy. This truly allows them to connect and deeply understand the problems needing to be solved."

3. Create value and define the 3-Ws

The role of the product manager is ever changing and ever evolving, and it’s our job to remain flexible and catch the curveballs thrown our way. When I first started in tech, there were very few official product management roles or titles. Nowadays, there’s a range of product roles specializing in B2B, B2C, platforms, early-stage products, growth hackers, monetization, and many more. There’s also multiple paths that lead to product management, which means today’s product managers come from an extremely diverse set of skills, backgrounds, and experiences.

One commonality product managers share is to create value to a group of people (typically users or customers), and often to create value for an organization by directly or indirectly driving revenue. The role of product managers is to define the 3-W’s: What, Why and When. However, we do not define the How. We lead and guide other cross-functional teams who define the How.

Designers define how features are used. Engineers decide how features are built. Marketing or Sales craft how features are positioned. Project managers coordinate how long it takes. Data analysts determine how much data to collect. The role of a Product Manager is to define the 3-W’s and provide guidance to the specialists who define the H’s in their respective fields. In a startup, you may have to wear multiple hats but the roles are clearly distinct.

Product managers typically do not have engineers, design, sales, etc directly reporting to them. Hence, today’s product managers are generally collaborative and must influence change without necessarily having authority. To create value and reach a common end state, product managers must set the product strategy and vision, create the product roadmap and define the product features.

4. Identify where you are in the product life cycle

Identify where you are in the product life cycle before defining the appropriate strategies to succeed. We’re in an interesting time where physical products are rapidly shifting towards digital ones, as well as the convergence of the two. The rise of software has led to many lines being blurred, new disciplines created, old ones merged. From connected platforms to music streaming apps, we continue to see more web, mobile, and cloud-based products created. Emerging technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, machine learning, bots, and drones also create exciting and new opportunities.

What hasn’t changed is the need to continuously innovate — and innovate quickly! Managing physical versus digital products requires different strategies given the inherent differences in development, release cycles, and distribution. But regardless of your product, identifying where you are in the product life cycle is critical to creating strategies for success.

Emerging products are typically testing for product-market fit. Often there’s no baseline and product managers rely on vision and intuition. Products in growth mode are scaling up and typically focus on acquiring new users. Products in maturity and decline phases is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s a reminder that the product already successfully transitioned through the emerging and rapid growth phase.
Now it’s time to shake things up and find strategies that extend the product’s value for your customers! As a product manager, it’s your job to remind and lead your teammates in this direction.

5. Product strategies start with a good story

Before you develop a strategy for your next product, take a step back. Remember that this strategy will be a blueprint for every decision you and your teams make moving forward, so it’s important to ensure that it gets to the root of your overall product story. Some important questions to consider when figuring out what that story is: Who are your customers? What problem are you helping them solve? What do these customers value most? What are the economic factors you must face in order to deliver value? Once you answer these questions, you’ll be able to create a blueprint that maps back to the core reason you’re creating this product for users in the first place.

It’s important to note that this blueprint needs to be communicated but doesn’t have to be static. It can change over time, but it shouldn’t change all the time. When changes are made, communication needs to happen. It also doesn’t hurt to repeat it to ensure the message is well received and understood across teams.

6. Utilize frameworks to get things done

Business models. Strategies. Product roadmaps. Just reading these words alone can make you feel overwhelmed, and when you feel overwhelmed, juggling everything on your plate becomes impossible. This is where you should utilize frameworks.

Frameworks are a great way to show your teams how to logically break things apart. Sometimes these frameworks can feel like Captain Obvious — but that’s okay! These outlines help to create a pattern and ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page. And if everyone is on the same page, processes are simplified and deadlines are more likely to be met.

There are many frameworks out there for managing development, processes, and strategy. Choosing one depends on what you want to solve for. Are you solving a high-level or tactical problem? Are you solving for how your next strategic project? Some popular approaches include The Lean Startup, Minimum Viable Product, Design Thinking, SWOT Analysis.

Development frameworks include Agile and Scrum Framework, Waterfall Model. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but with so many choices, the important takeaway is to utilize frameworks to keep all the balls in the air, drive organizational efficiency, and align teams towards a common purpose.

7. Identify passions to determine strengths

When working with cross-functional teams, a lot of the times the only thing the team has in common is the actual product they’re working on. How can you ensure you’re managing each individual team member in a way that will help them grow? A great tip I learned is to take a step back and look at each person’s passions.

Passions can help determine a product manager’s strengths such as technical, user experience, business strategy, data, marketing, project management, or innovation. Our passions don’t always have to do with what we do at work every day, but they’re a reflection of what motivates and drives us. Understanding what each individual on your team is passionate about will help you identify opportunities for growth.

8. Learn how to write code

Want to make yourself extra-marketable? Brush up on your tech skills. "Product managers who know how to write code are called ‘technical product managers,’" says Mark Davis. They’re a rare breed, and are in extremely high demand...because they’re better able to lead the developers who will build their products."

Natalie Baer, a product manager at Verizon, agrees that tech skills can only help you. "Spend time talking with and working with engineers if you’re not an engineer. Learn to code (coding bootcamps are an effective option). Work on your own side project. Become a technology expert in an area you are interested in."

9. Prioritize prioritizing

A day in the life of a product manager often involves being bombarded from all sides: requests from clients, questions from employees, instructions from the boss, and a hundred tasks to juggle and decisions to make. Prioritizing (and delegating) are key.

Jamie Morningstar, product manager at Qualtrics, says, "The hardest part of product management is deciding which initiatives are the very best in a sea of good ideas. Take the time in your current role to practice creating business cases. Prioritize your team's activities and to document the justification for that prioritization. Identify and to the extent possible quantify the business value for every initiative you take on and prioritize accordingly."

10. Demonstrate UX experience

A product manager won’t succeed if they don’t keep the end user in mind throughout the design and creation process. This is where a user experience background comes in handy.

"The core of product management is understanding the person that will ultimately use your product," says Marwan Soghaier, CPO of ad tech platform SteelHouse. "If you have been at the forefront of sketching out ways to fix things, like working flow diagrams or schematics that show how people will interact or how a customer will be passed from one service team member to another, then you are already designing and you are pulling together pieces of a puzzle to create a masterpiece. It’s surely a jumping off point to product management."

Mark Davis advises keeping hard evidence to back up the skills you claim. "It's always better to show your skill than to just talk about it, so instead of just writing ‘UX knowledge’ and ‘design’ as skills on your resume, create an interesting personal portfolio site that SHOWS you have the skills."

11. Learn how to lead

It’s right in the title after all: "manager." Lots of teams work together to make a product, and the product manager needs to help facilitate that collaboration.

"You must exercise leadership and conduct a team of professionals that represent many talents," says Soghaier. "If you think you’re not the best organizer or don’t feel comfortable moderating a meeting, try taking a Toastmasters series or leadership workshop, or get a Scrum certification. Doing that will definitely put you in a leadership mindset and set you on a path to take your existing professional skills to a product management domain."

He also notes that the best leaders seek to elevate their entire teams, not just themselves, and are understanding of imperfection. "Always seek to help others be successful, and make your team look good. Forgive others when they’ve failed, and help them pick themselves up. Forgive yourself for not being perfect when you screw up…there will be many of those moments."

12. Hone your analytical thinking skills

"Product managers are problem solvers with vision," says Soghaier. Inevitably, there will be problems, so you’ll need the analytical skills to work around them or change directions.

Morningstar notes that this goes hand in hand with understanding what’s going on in your technical teams. "Product managers must be able to talk and think analytically and with technical proficiency. If you don't come from a technical background, stick close to people who do and ask them tons and tons of questions. Don't obsess on the specific technical details, but focus more on how they view and analyze problems--you want to learn to see the world through their eyes and approach problems with strong analytical skills."

13. Consider how you would improve a product in your current company

Have you noticed a weakness in your current company’s product--or have an idea for a new feature in mind? Before you suggest it to the product manager or team, think like a product manager yourself and flesh it out, advises Morningstar. "Think through how you would implement the feature and why. Craft a problem statement and a mini business case around why the problem is worth fixing and the upside to the organization if it's fixed."

This will allow you to get a real-world feel for the job before committing to a full product management role, in addition to proving your worth to your current company, she says. "You'll be honing your product management skills, demonstrating your aptitude for the job, increasing the odds that your idea will get implemented, and becoming an asset to your product manager instead of a drag."


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