How Can Product Managers Be More Effective Leaders and Make Better Decisions?
At the INDUSTRY Product Conference several years ago, I had the opportunity to lead an engaging group discussion about essential techniques for product managers to be as effective as possible. Several interesting questions and themes emerged that are critical to building successful products and delighting users.
Top of mind issues for product owners include maximizing the value of user research, collaborating effectively with stakeholders, making great decisions, and navigating complex organizational dynamics. Below are thoughts and actionable recommendations that emerged from these conversations.
Getting Everyone on the Same Page Can Be Frustrating and Seemingly Impossible
You should not expect everyone to agree with the decisions you make. In fact, some of the most important decisions you make will almost certainly upset some of your colleagues, as that is the nature of hard decisions (if they were easy, everyone would agree).
There are different pressures from management, design, engineering, sales, and customer service, about what should be built and why. Priorities compete, and disagreements naturally arise.
Here are some tips for dealing with these disagreements:
- Have a way for everyone to share their input. Sometimes people just want to be heard and feel like their voice matters. Even if you ultimately don’t use someone’s ideas, keep an open mind and give them the opportunity to express their thoughts. Great leaders will actively solicit feedback and input rather than relying on others to take the initiative.
- Circulate notes before meetings so people can prepare their thoughts in advance. If everyone is reacting to information for the first time in a meeting, responses may be emotional and poorly thought out. But if you give your colleagues time to think and prepare, conversations will be more engaging and valuable.
- Embrace “disagree but commit.” This is a principle that needs repeating internally. Acknowledge that the team won’t agree. It’s the product manager’s job to prioritize, and it’s everyone else’s job to provide input. Once decided, commit and move forward. Wherever possible, explain not only what you’ve decided to do, but also why.
How Do We Decide What to Build?
The question of prioritization is the essence of modern, iterative product development. Product professionals are actively trying to master how to create and use roadmaps, manage sprints, measure and track KPIs, and integrate lean experimentation into their existing products. All of these affect a team’s ability to successfully innovate and create value for their users.
There is no silver bullet for making great decisions. The companies that make the best decisions use data and research to test, learn, and iterate consistently.
Some tips for elevating product decisions in your organization:
- Embrace experimentation. Leading companies understand that the best possible scenario for a decision is that it’s only likely to be a good one. There are no guarantees. Top performers recognize failure as an opportunity to learn and get right back to iterating when they missed the mark.
- Talk to your users. This simple rule is far too often overlooked and neglected. The more you understand the people for whom you’re developing solutions, the higher your success rate will be in making good decisions.
- Throw away your traditional roadmap. New information is available all the time. You should update your prioritization list at least as often as the seasons change. If you want to improve the decisions you make, build agility into your planning. Sometimes the best ideas come unexpectedly and are relatively quick to implement. Your roadmap may be getting in the way of these kinds of quick wins.
Don’t Put Roadblocks In Your Way to Doing Research
You don’t need a prototype. You don’t need a comprehensive 60-minute test plan. You don’t need a participant who fits all 12 behavioral variables on your persona.
You just need to talk to your users!
A common theme discussed among PMs is their inability to do as much user research as they’d like. There are at least two dozen reasons I hear regularly for why teams aren’t doing as much research as they wish they could. This is one of those classic examples of where perfect is the enemy of good enough.
There is no such thing as perfect research. There’s no such thing as 100% reliable insight. And there is no such thing as “we don’t have the resources” to get research done.
If there are roadblocks, think about how you can get around them. Instead of thinking in terms of “we need to do more user research,” just think, “we need to talk to customers more often.”
- Finding people to talk to is easier than you think. Just pick up the phone and call some customers. They’ll be happy to chat! Or if you don’t have customers, try LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you can find people who might be users. There are always ways to talk to people if your goal is to have a conversation.
- Ask open-ended questions. Have a conversation with users where you ask them questions that simply get them talking. Be curious and open-minded. Have few preconceived notions. Don’t just try to confirm what you already think.
- Schedule interviews for at least 2 days every month. Have ongoing scheduling. Keep these interviews on the calendar regardless of what interview plans you have prepared. Even if you go in with no plan, that’s fine! Just talk to customers consistently. It’s like training a muscle — keep doing it and you’ll keep getting better at it.
- Build a product advisory board. It might seem better to have different participants for all of your research interviews, but that is often not the case. The most important thing is that you have people to talk to consistently.
Research Your Users, Not Your Product
There are certainly times when a prototype or live product is required for getting meaningful insights. That is typically only the case when you’re refining a user experience concept or doing usability testing on an interface.
But the majority of your research should be about your user. If you change your focus from “what should we build in our product?” to “what should we understand about our user?”, your research and institutional knowledge will be more empathetic in nature, more broadly applicable to decisions across your organization, and your understanding of your customers will more naturally evolve over time.
User research should inspire and surprise, not just verify.
Too much research is spent “validating.” Stop validating. Start learning. Cultivate empathy for your users and customers. Be excited when you learn that you were wrong about something — this is real insight!
- Develop questions and hypotheses about your users, not your product. Build your inquiries from there.
- Your goal should be to understand your users so you can predict what would be valuable for them, not throwing UX concepts and prototypes at people to gauge reactions.
- Learn from competitors. Instead of having your users test your products, try having them test your competitors’ products or marketing. You’ll likely be surprised how this difference affects what you ask about and how it shapes your understanding of user needs.
Organizational Dynamics Are Not Solvable With Tips and Tricks
Most product managers I spoke with have an authentic desire to delight their customers and build great things. Unfortunately, they are often hamstrung by issues like corporate politics, lack of resources, and other internal priorities.
If you’re in a sales-driven organization that focuses solely on revenue, you won’t be able to make decisions in the same way a truly customer-centric organization will. If your organization does not invest in data and research tools and services, you won’t be as data-driven as leading organizations. If you don’t have a dedicated UX researcher, you certainly won’t be doing as much research as teams that do.
Sometimes you have to embrace the reality of your situation and make things work as well as possible. Acknowledge your constraints instead of trying to make things perfect. The reality is that most professionals (not just product managers) do not work in conditions where they can do everything they want in the way they desire. None of us live in a product utopia.
And even though I said at the top of this section that tips and tricks won’t solve these problems, here are some tips that may help a little bit:
- Focus on problems you can solve, and thoughtfully navigate around those you cannot.
- Communication is usually the biggest problem and the source of many other issues. Think about how you can get your team to communicate more effectively. Try to bring honesty, transparency, and vulnerability to the way you communicate (i.e. be comfortable sharing that you don’t understand or agree). This will hopefully inspire more openness. Also try to have more one-on-one conversations with members of your team. These are often far more productive and helpful than group meetings or asynchronous messaging.
- Talk to other product professionals! The universe of product managers, designers, developers, researchers, and data scientists is growing by the day. We all deal with similar issues as we strive to inform great product decisions. Attending events and meet-ups, joining Slack communities, and even just reaching out to peers you admire can be very helpful for brainstorming and sharing lessons of success and failure.
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