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Some dos and don’ts for product managers

02 Jan

Do you ever wonder what to do when you start a new job!? How do you get a good sense of what’s going on and when can you start making some sort of an impact? Ken Norton, Product Partner at Google Ventures, has written a great article which offers practical tips to product managers on things they do should do during the first 30 days into their new job. In the article, Ken’s overarching focus is on “people, product and personal”.

This is my summary of Ken’s suggestions, combined with some of my own experiences and learnings:

People:

  • Review your objectives with your CEO or manager – Like Ken suggests, I believe it’s very important to set expectations with your line manager of CEO on your objectives as a product manager. Identify and agree upfront what success will look like in your role. Especially as product management can be a fairly new discipline in lots of organisations, it’s important to manage expectation from day one.
  • Schedule one-to-ones – Whenever I start a new job, I tend to spend the first week just having one-to-one conversations with a variety of people across the business. My main goals for having these conversations are twofold. Firstly, I use these chats to get an initial sense of people’s responsibilities, their biggest challenges and how I can be of help to them. Secondly, it gives me an opportunity to introduce myself in an informal setting rather than in a meeting with lots of other people. Especially in cases where I work closely with a dedicated team, I’ll spend a lot of time talking to individual team members and exploring what makes them tick (and what doesn’t) and again see how I can help.

Product:

  • Spend time with your lead engineer and ask ‘dumb’ questions – I believe that product management ultimately is a team sport. Your lead engineer can play a vital role in this and I find it very helpful to spend quite a bit of time with him/her in the first couple of weeks of a new role. Especially since my background isn’t in engineering, I’ll tend to listen A LOT and ask many ‘why’ and ‘how’ type questions. I can imagine that some of my questions might well be perceived as ‘dumb’ (although dumb questions don’t exist in my world), but I’d rather ask and find out than not.
  • Don’t jump in too quickly – I know from experience how tempting it can be to get stuck in straight away. However, I fully agree with Ken’s point about taking your time before you start making changes. Allow yourself some time to speak to people, key problems and their nuances and to build up a good picture of the business and its customers.
  • Talk to users – A good way to learn about a product that you’re not fully familiar with is to talk to (target) users. Ken talks about spending a good amount of your early days with users. Meet with users or clients, see and hear how they interact with your product. Spend some time with the Customer Services team to take some calls and look into support issues. Whether you work in a B2B or B2C environment, it’s really important to quickly get a first sense of your target audience, their needs and how your product or service addresses those needs. As a product manager you’ll interact with (target) customers on an ongoing basis, and I believe one should use the first weeks of a new role to start these interactions, and learn about the customer and their needs/behaviours.

Personal:

  • Read up and write about it – It helps to read things related to your product – old specs, design documents, wiki pages, etc. As you find documentation that is missing or out of date, add to it. Especially if the domain of your product is new to you, I’d encourage you to read, talk and listen to find out as much as you can about your product, its proposition and its users. Spend some time to write up what you’ve learned.
  • Understand the business, its competitors and the market – Don’t limit yourself to just understanding your product or your external customers. As a product person, I believe it’s just as important to understand the business as a whole. What’s the business model? What levers drive the performance of your business and why? Creating an understanding of such things will help you in having a wider context around the products that you’ll be working on. Similarly, you want to figure out who your internal ‘customers’ or stakeholders are. Who are the internal people with a clear interest in the product, its development and performance? How would they like to be communicated with? Starting to build a rapport with these internal stakeholders is critical for you as a product manager.
  • Set personal goals – Apart from the specific OKRs that will have been set by the organisation for you and your product, Ken suggests setting your own personal development goals. For example, one of my personal development goals when I started a new role a few months ago was to use more data to inform my product decisions.

In the same week that I came across Ken’s suggestions about things product managers should do in their first month, I also read two interesting articles on 4 Mistakes New Product Managers Make and Why Most Product Managers Suck (And How To Be A Better One). You can find my summaries of both articles in Fig. 1 and 2 below respectively.

Main learning point: Even though product management can be a hard job to get ‘right’, there are a number of things that you can do as a product manager in the first days in your new job to learn and to determine how you can best contribute. If I had to sum up Ken Norton’s great article in one word, I’d go for “listening”. Lots of product people talk about humility, and whilst that’s absolutely right, in practice this to me means an awful lot of listening, asking the right questions and being able to make (snap) decisions based on your understanding of things.

Fig. 1 – “4 Mistakes New Product Managers Make” by Matt Schnitt – Taken from: http://dev.hubspot.com/blog/4-mistakes-new-product-managers-make and combined with some of my own experiences and learnings

  1. That’s not our user – Don’t write off user opinions too quickly. Matt makes a great point in that “great products almost never solve for a single persona or need”. With a lot of products there are a lot more prospective users who might not exactly fit your ideal user persona than the ones that do.
  2. We can’t kill it – Be brave enough to acknowledge when a feature isn’t working. Your user doesn’t care that it was an incredible technical challenge to implement. Your user doesn’t care that it took 4 weeks and 3 full-time engineers to build. And they certainly don’t care that you may lose some respect among your team for admitting defeat. I agree with Matt’s point that it’s all about the optimal experience for the user, finding the best way to solve their problems.
  3. Thinking only about solutions – When I first read this suggestion, I thought that this might be a bit of a contradiction in terms. As a product manager, when your confronted with a problem your first inclination is think about possible solutions. The risk with this, however, is that you might not spend enough time looking into the exact nature and scale of the problem. What’s the user problem that your product is trying to solve? What aspect of the current solution is causing the users issues and why?
  4. It’s not ready yet – Like Matt, I’ve seen plenty of people spending a lot of time (and postponing launches as a result) trying to polish their product, adding to scope and making more tweaks to the product. I’ve learned over the years to become better at defining and communicating the ‘product baseline’; establishing what the product should do as part of its first release and sticking to that. This implies that as a product manager you’ll need to feel comfortable making tough calls at times and saying ‘no’ as a result.

Fig. 2 – “Why Most Product Managers Suck (And How To Be A Better One)” by Vik Singh – Taken from: http://thenextweb.com/entrepreneur/2014/05/11/product-managers-suck-better-one/

  • Innovate through minimalism – The best product thinkers know how to carve down the scope of the product until it makes even more sense, as opposed to adding more and more superfluous features.
  • Prioritise ruthlessly – Product managers help prioritise the development calendar for engineering, and to do that you need to have excellent organisation skills and the ability to make difficult trade-off’s quickly. Vik gives a great of a product manager who he worked with at Yahoo and who had “the ability to ignore the noise and instead focus on the most important issues, standing up for what he felt was right”.
  • Influence without authority – Good product managers know that the “manager” part of their title is a misnomer, and can build respect from engineers and engineering managers without formal authority. You do this by being extremely good at assessing the costs of features in terms of time and impact. This helps to build trust with engineering and sales that you know what you’re doing, and that they can depend on you to make the right hard calls.
  • Communicate with presence – Product managers are responsible for interfacing with not just engineering and marketing, but also customers and company executives. Being able to write and speak clearly and persuasively is key for getting folks excited about what you’re building, ensuring they understand the requirements, and presenting yourself as a reliable source for product information.

 Related links for further learning:

  1. http://feltpresence.com/articles/14-advice-for-product-managers
  2. http://www.pminheels.com/2014/07/just-say-no-prioritization-and-product.html
  3. http://thenextweb.com/entrepreneur/2014/07/24/12-things-product-managers-first-30-days-new-company/
  4. http://dev.hubspot.com/blog/4-mistakes-new-product-managers-make
  5. http://www.cindyalvarez.com/best-practices/the-myth-of-the-self-starter
  6. http://thenextweb.com/entrepreneur/2014/05/11/product-managers-suck-better-one/
  7. http://benhorowitz.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/good-product-manager.pdf
  8. http://web.stanford.edu/class/e140/e140a/handouts/ProductMgmt.txt
  9. http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/when-youre-innovating-resist-l/
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIBccpqUcgY
  11. http://firstround.com/article/The-one-cost-engineers-and-product-managers-dont-consider
  12. http://www.quora.com/Product-Management/What-distinguishes-the-Top-1-of-Product-Managers-from-the-Top-10/
  13. http://benhorowitz.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/good-product-manager.pdf
  14. http://www.svpg.com/good-product-team-bad-product-team
  15. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141007135229-1453794-5-symptoms-to-fire-your-product-manager
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Posted by on January 2, 2015 in Product Management

 

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