This last year has been a blur. At the start of 2016 I was working in Product Management at Twitter, and then I moved to the other side of the world to work at Atlassian in Sydney, Australia. Despite the massive geographic and timezone change, I’ve learned a lot from both places about being a better product manager.
These lessons are based on my own experiences and feedback from managers, peers, and direct reports. I can’t thank these individuals enough for taking the time to share this feedback with me, as it’s the most valuable information I, (and anyone for that matter) can use to grow as a product manager.
1. If you’ve never left the office feeling like you’re terrible at your job, you probably are.
I have often left the office feeling pretty shitty. Common thoughts I’ve had include: “Am I the worst PM?” or “Maybe this isn’t a career for me”. I’ve come to accept this as a fairly normal feeling to have if I’m pushing myself and my team to build something valuable, question existing norms, and connect deeply with customers.
These are all things that we product managers applaud, without often appreciating the laborious process to get there. Anything worth doing is hard.
Tip: I try to embrace the uncertainty and painful process of building something entirely new with a team. And if I don’t feel the burn, if I start getting too comfortable, I ask myself if I am really doing enough to improve my customer’s lives. I find that running customer interviews or collecting in-person customer feedback makes sure I stay connected to customers.
2. It’s far worse to solve the wrong problem than to build the wrong solution to the right problem.
Spend the extra time upfront to really, really understand the problem you are solving. The new hotness is to use the JTBD framework to achieve this, but no matter which tool you use, be sure to gain an intimate understanding of your customer’s pains and motivations.
Build incrementally and get as much feedback as humanly possible early in the process. Test things as cheaply as you can. Focus all efforts on identifying that you are truly solving a key problem for a customer, then make some bets on the best solution.
My team and I have actually tracked how many expletives we’ve heard during demos of a prototype as an indicator if we were truly solving the right problem. We’re looking for a “HECK YEAH!”, not, “That’s pretty cool.” If you’re wrong about the solution you can always tweak things, but if you’re not solving a core problem you are setting yourself up for failure. Figure out the problem, remind yourself of it every morning, and you’ll be just fine.
Tip: Strive to elicit an emotional reaction from customers during the alpha/beta phase of development. Whether it’s effusively positive (ideally) or painfully negative (still valuable) you know you’re on to something. Use problem framing to define the problem you’re trying to tackle, and determine the “ooh aah” impact for customers.
3. Every feature has a hidden cost, so choose wisely.
There is a hidden cost to shipping features. Teams usually understand the direct costs (man-hours, server costs, etc) as well as indirect ones (ongoing maintenance, marketing spend, etc). The cost that we rarely account for is that a portion of customers will inevitably be confused or annoyed by the new feature.
It’s easy to assume that all new features provide net positive value to customers, but a quick glance through product reviews on tech blogs will reveal this to be untrue. If you ship a feature that 80% of customers love, the other 20% will have a negative reaction. Ship five features like that and chances are you’ve added some level of confusion to the majority of your customers. These things add up, so choose new features wisely.
Tip: You can’t solve for everything. Develop a specific target customer, obsess over their needs, get lots of feedback and only ship things that they will almost certainly love. Using an experience canvas can help with that. If anything is a “maybe”, save yourself the time and don’t ship it. You will thank yourself in the future.
4. Be wary of becoming an accidental diminisher.
Of all lessons I’ve learned, this one was the most mind-blowing. An accidental diminisher is someone who, despite being a perfectly capable, well-intentioned leader, drains the team’s productivity.
Here are signs that you might be an accidental diminisher:
- Are you the most talkative person in every meeting?
- Do you consider yourself a “visionary”, painting a future that is often too far removed from today’s reality?
- Do you feel compelled to jump in and take over the situation every time something goes wrong?
- Do you think it’s in the best interest of your company to have more people report to you?
There is an entire book written on this topic, but the idea is that we should inspire to be a multiplier — someone who helps amplify everyone around them. Multipliers are people who:
- Ask questions rather than give answers.
- Share knowledge in small increments rather than giving long lectures. Let others fill in the gaps.
- Expect team members to be fully autonomous and accountable, not hanging on their every word.
This has been the one that’s hardest for me in practice, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with managers who’ve helped coach me through it.
Tip: Read up on this topic and review the warning signs and tips to address this tendency regularly. Your team will appreciate it. You can also take yourself (and your team) through a roles and responsibilities session to make sure no toes are stepped on.
5. Be a servant leader rather than a traditional leader.
Related to the last one, but a slightly different take. To quote the author of this concept, Robert K Greenleaf,
“A servant leader focuses on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid’, servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
To put this in my own words, the most meaningful thing a leader can do is invest time in helping their team members grow in their craft and achieve whatever personal goals they have set out to attain. This obviously has the implication that you know your team members goals, so that’s a great place to start!
Tip: Understand what your team members are trying to achieve, both on your project and personally for their career growth. Come up with at least one thing you are personally doing to help them achieve these goals. Review with them every quarter.
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Author: Brian Swift