Key skills behind a great product manager

As a daily customer, there are days when I read (or listen) to posts/articles which make me think more about how I operate, think or shape myself in my professional and personal life. You know…when you read something that just hits the spot at the right time and makes you go ‘wow, that is so timely’.

I had one of those this morning on my way into the office on the bus, which articulated the nexus of what makes a great product manager.

This is a tricky one to shape as the role has many guises in many businesses. But, as this role has shaped a large degree of my thinking and how I operate, I look at this role in the context of digital product management, which is the role that has been changing the world over the past 15-20 years (yes, these are the people behind email, messaging, social media, smartphones, search …I could go on).

So, I wanted to share the article from Jack Moore (, which hit the spot with me:

Product Management’s Most Important Lessons

The lessons that the best product people teach over and over again

When people ask how I got into product management, I like to say that I “fell into it”. That may not exactly be true, when I look back on my path, but either way I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve discovered this field. Building products that solve peoples’ problems, and that do it in a measurable way, is an incredibly rewarding vocation.

The biggest thing that I can stress about great product managers, and probably great professionals in general, is that the continuous learners are the ones who succeed. The great PM’s out there who follow the axiom of “firm beliefs, loosely held”, and follow up by seeking out opinions that challenge their beliefs, are the ones that I seek out and attempt to emulate.

As I’ve struggled to live as a constantly learning PM, here are the lessons that I find myself learning on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, from the greatest minds in product.

There is no one path to product

A product manager is one that challenges themselves to treat every problem in the world as a solution waiting to happen. That empathy is core to what makes a product manager different, and it’s the core value that one must have in order to succeed in this field. It’s also not something you can learn while getting a CS degree.

When product management first burst forth into the early world of agile software development — a world of floppy discs and post-it notes and manifestos — software engineering was the common path towards the uncommon field of product managers.

As the field has grown, all walks of life have lent some of their most empathetic and technologically curious to product management.

Ask any product manager worth their salt and they’ll tell you that there’s no one route to this line of work. Yes, familiarity with the software that you’re asking your team to develop is a plus, and so good product managers sometimes come from software development backgrounds, but as we’ve asserted, this is not the PM’s most important quality.

If you survey the field, you’ll find history majors, math majors, and electrical engineering majors. You’ll see ex-real estate agents building the software that they have learned is needed through their years in industry, and doing it better than product managers with years of experience elsewhere.

…But the most successful PM’s work to know the tech

Though I’ve learned that there is no single path to success as a product manager, as I continue to learn what it means to be a good PM, I often hear …

You don’t need to be technical, but it sure as hell helps

Being on the less technical end of the spectrum, especially when I started, this was an uncomfortable thing to hear, but I heard it from the most successful PM’s out there. Over and over again.

In his book InspiredMarty Cagan says that there are 2 classes every product manager should take, one of which is an introductory programming class (the other is an introductory accounting or finance class). Cagan says in his book

You may love it, you may hate it, but either way it will fundamentally expand your technology horizons and enable you to have much richer discussions with your engineers and designers. It will also give you a better appreciation for the power of enabling technology. — Marty Cagan, Inspired

but you’ll find that the successful ones can at least talk shop with engineers.

This isn’t a skill you need to pick up in college, but it is something you should strive to cultivate. A working knowledge of the technology allows a PM to:

  • More easily explain to others what you’re building. Analogy is a product manager’s second language, after all
  • Develop more of a rapport with your engineers
  • Understand the horizons of what is possible in your architecture

One of a PM’s core responsibilities is that of a bridge between the customer, engineering, and the line of business. As such, being able to communicate the day-to-day of your engineering team is right behind the ability to communicate the needs of your customers, in terms of importance.

Once you understand the problem, knowing the tech allows you to understand the solution.

The unofficial official motto of the product manager

Product managers are responsible for the success of the products that they manage, but the teams that develop those solutions do not report to the product manager. In fact, most product managers are actually individual contributors.

The most important challenge a product manager faces is how to get your team to build the right product, when they don’t actually work for you?

The product manager is in a position where they have to inspire engineers to build products which inspire change.

As such, product managers are responsible for creating a compelling case for why any particular piece of work is what their team should be dedicating their time towards. The best engineering teams want to understand the impact of their work, and it’s the product manager’s job to impart that understanding…

The WHY of product is where great product managers make their cheddar. A good PM can guess at WHAT a customer needs in order to be reach a given outcome, and a good engineering team will tell you HOW to get there.

Great engineering teams, on the other hand, want to understand the WHY their product is important.

A product manager who is not responsible for the impact of the solutions they’re building is not a product manager.

Developing a shared knowledge with your team regarding their mission can be done in a number of ways. Engineers respond to users in pain (another Marty Cagan-ism), and so qualitative analysis like user interviews are often key to developing your team’s empathy of a particular user.

I’ve also found that data often tells a powerful story as well, and as such developing a foundational knowledge of the data surrounding a problem is important.

Ultimately though, qualitative and quantitative analysis are most powerful when used in combination.

  • Quantitative analysis can answer a lot of questions, but it doesn’t easily tell you which questions to ask.
  • Qualitative analysis is fantastic at uncovering important questions and assumptions, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

This combination of qual and quant make for a powerful 1–2 punch that engineering teams respond to, and product managers that maintain this sort of benchmark are the ones that can truly communicate whether their products accomplish the goals that they’ve set out to accomplish.

Google’s growing problem: 50% of people do zero searches per day on mobile

Great piece on the challenges that Google has in relation to time and user interaction models on mobile. Search provided consumers with simplicity of discovery and pathing on desktop, but on mobile the user journey is more fragmented and also a single tap to discover (and with voice interfaces even easier) so the number of searches per day, per user is dramatically less on mobile than desktop. This is creating an exponential challenge for Google, as Apple integrates search into the core iOS, Android is an open OS, so is not one flavour on all mobiles and also the tap/app/tap/app model means that consumers have the information they are interested in right there …no need to use the Google box to navigate to it.

The Overspill: when there's more that I want to say

Amit Singhal in 2011 showing a comparison of search volumes from mobile and “early desktop years”. Photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.

Amit Singhal, Google’s head of search, let slip a couple of interesting statistics at the Re/Code conference – none more so than that more than half of all searches incoming to Google each month are from mobile. (That excludes tablets.)

This averages out to less than one search per smartphone per day. We’ll see why in a bit.

First let’s throw in some more publicly available numbers.
• more than 100bn searches made per month to Google (total of desktop/ tablet/ mobile).
• about 1.4bn monthly active Google Android devices. (Source: Sundar Pichai, Nexus launch.)
• about 1 billion monthly active Google Play users. (Source: Sundar Pichai, Nexus launch.)
• about 1.5bn PCs in use worldwide.
• about 400m iPhones in use worldwide. Probably about 100m…

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The future power of newsrooms is in understanding the platform world

I have bumped into this ‘challenge’ over & over again throughout my 20+ year career in digital media. What platform are we creating our content for? How do we make sure our process, tools & technologies are able to adapt & respond to new platforms?

Sadly, there are a number of large businesses who are still not able to answer this question or who have bet the house on a platform which is no longer the most relevant to it’s customers. Storytelling is key to the human race, it has been occurring since the cavemen shared stories around a fire, but they moved to tell stories via cave paintings as they wanted to tell a wider audience, and the rock face was the platform. This has been the evolutionary case over time, with print presses, radio, TV & now digital (and the internet).

As we are now in a world where the mobile internet is THE primary habit for keeping connected, therefore those who are telling stories need to evolve their output and processes to these connected, mobile platforms.

The platform is eating the world (well, mobile video is actually), so therefore media organisation or those who want to tell stories needs to accept this, acknowledge it and then change their newsroom processes and outputs to meet the needs of the customers/readers …well, this will be connected viewers really, but you get what I mean.

This posting on Medium also outlines this challenge, so have a read:

Building platform agnostic newsrooms and platform perfect content

Embrace your constraints & drive innovation: the value of the hackathon

Having worked at a number of digital businesses who have internal ‘hackathons’ I have always seen the great value of getting diverse teams together, constraining them with either key problems to be solved or time & resources constraints …and then amazed by the creativity & execution which is possible under these conditions. At Yahoo! the Yahoo! Weather app, a number of key features within Flickr, Mail & Sport came from the EMEA or Global hackathons, and even in AOL (back in the day) the ability to set diverse teams against a customer problem generated a number of new approaches using technology (in those days there FDO and Rainman!!)

These events allow all employees critically to ‘fail safe’ and also to come at a business or customer need from multiple angles, connect the dots between how to answer the ‘job to be done’ using technology & then execute.
We have instilled this within News Corp Australia through our NewsFoundry initiative (next one end of the month) & all the teams across the business are now using this approach from the startup/digital world to enable innovation.

To understand more the value of these ‘hackathons’ read the following from Pedram Keyani from @Uber but formerly @Facebook, as it articulates the value this organised events can have on the culture, execution focus & employee engagement within a business.

Hacking Company Culture

A Simpler Life

Very interesting to read this article –– on @ConversationEDU discussing the ‘footprint’ of the population here in Australia & it made me think about how connectivity, drones, automation & innovation can be used to balance the right ecosystems around us to sustain us.

What if you were able to create micro-footprints around the world for all you needed, share these with anyone & then collaboratively reduce the burden on the Earth’s resources …

From medium: The Xbox 180: Why designing the business matters — Medium

The Xbox 180: Why designing the business matters

Artefact’s Craig Hajduk on design tips for MBAs

The big story in June was Microsoft’s Xbox One announcement, and their abrupt about-face on used games and online connectivity. In an attempt to enable new scenarios based on online services linked to physical discs, they angered gaming enthusiasts by changing the rules of the business. It’s an all-too-common phenomenon, where high-profile companies make business model changes, and face significant backlashes from customers and the press.

It’s useful to take a step back and think about why companies keep having those painful experiences, and what design can do to help.

The Siren Song of Online Services

Online services seem ubiquitous. Both investors and finance departments love moving from volatile purchase or upgrade cycles to the more predictable, lower-risk world of monthly subscriptions. Tying use rights to a user account opens up lots of new licensing possibilities, which should result in increased value for both customers and companies.

But when an existing product has a different business model, it can be a harrowing transition. Without a strong, obvious value proposition, subscription models can seem selfish. Customers may feel that their loyalty and past investments are being taken for granted. Microsoft learned this the hard way in 2001, when they changed their software upgrade model for business customers. Although the new model was better for many customers than their previous approach, Microsoft faced a public backlash over perceptions of price hikes and confusion over use rights.

Similarly, on the consumer side, Netflix ran into trouble when they split their streaming and DVD rental businesses, introduced a new brand with Qwikster, and raised prices. The resulting frustration dominated their news cycles for several weeks, and hurt subscriber growth.

In each of these cases, executives had strong visions of where they wanted to take their businesses, and were convinced they were doing the right thing for customers. But, they were still unprepared for the critical, often emotional reaction they received. While both companies recovered — Microsoft has taken a more customer friendly approach with Office 365, which will soon be a $1 billion business, and Netflix continues to delight investors with innovative growth strategies — the initial missteps could have easily been avoided if they had taken a more design-centric approach to the new business models, rather than the typical analytical one.

Practical Advice for Designing Business Model Transitions

There are several practical steps teams can take to use a design-centric approach to develop new business models and plans.

  1. Simplify. And then, make it simpler. Sometimes, in an attempt to optimize for different audiences, companies introduce new pricing or licensing models that can make customer purchase decisions extremely complex. Companies like SAP take more than a hundred pages to explain their license types, which is a pain point for customers in a world where straightforward approaches like Dropbox enjoy explosive growth. The solution is to use a design process to drive to simpler solutions that still meet customer and business objectives, much in the same way that well designed devices are both powerful and intuitive. As designers, we are often engaged not only to design the products but, with the use of research and design techniques, to help clients visualize program design and identify opportunities for streamlining offerings across different channels and customer types.
  2. Prototype the plan. “Fail fast, fail often” is an often repeated mantra for product development that’s based in the idea that rapid, public iteration leads to faster product improvement. Unfortunately, rapid business model changes confuse and alienate customers. JC Penney discovered this when it changed its pricing strategy, and then switched it again when customers failed to respond. Things kept getting worse after all the changes, which forcing a major leadership change. A better approach is to prototype and test the evaluation, purchase, and licensing models that you want to roll out in the same way that you would test the actual product to make sure the business model and product value are tightly aligned. If your business structure allows it, narrowly scoped pilots can be an effective technique. Facebook Deals is one of the few public examples of prototyping a new service. They rolled out deals at the height of the daily deal craze, they did it in a few select markets, they tested, they learned, they left.
  3. Customers are people too (even in the enterprise). Quantitative disciplines like finance often dominate business model strategy, and it’s often tempting to think that customers will use the same spreadsheets and analytical tools to evaluate a pricing concept model that internal teams used to develop it. But it’s critical to keep the customer experience, including the emotional reaction, front and center. The understanding not only of the customers’ needs, but also of their perceptions and personal goals, yields surprising results that undermine the validity of purely quantitative assumptions. Ignoring that aspect of a business model switch is risky — just look at the backlash to Adobe’s new subscription-only business model. Research techniques that capture the entire customer experience—both quantitative and qualitative— are basic tools on the design thinking palette. It is time to add them to the business model planning palette as well.
  4. Use carrots, not sticks. Behavioral economics and cognitive psychology provide us with great insights and allow us to predict with a fair amount of accuracy how we will react to different stimuli. Designing a product that steers towards a certain behavior and outcome is something good designers are experts in. Leveraging these principles to predict reaction to business models is not a far stretch. For example, using incentives to pull adopters to new business models is often more successful than forcing customers to move. If they feel pushed, loss aversion amplifies negative feelings, and the positive benefits of the new model can be lost. Microsoft discovered exactly this effect with the launch of the Xbox One, where the use of online services coupled with traditional discs opened up new scenarios for saving, sharing, and cross device play. However, the impact on used games drove many customers to see it as a takeaway, forcing Microsoft to reverse its position shortly after launch.
  5. Avoid the risk of risk aversion. It is common knowledge that companies that are afraid to take risks often fail to create differentiated products and passionate customers. At the same time, recent research shows that risk-averse leadership actually shows a significantly increased appetite for risk when results are poor. The outcome for these companies is a manic swing between incremental, undifferentiated approaches, and radical changes that alienate customers just when their support is needed the most. Investing in innovation and building a culture of risk tolerance is the way to break out of the risk aversion trap and successful design firms are prime examples that the approach pays off.

Designing a business model is as complex as designing a product, yet we often tend to oversimplify it in executive summaries and on spreadsheets. Taking a step back to think like a designer and accounting for the qualitative outcomes in response to a business strategy change can result in better, smoother, more effective transitions. And when that happens, the ultimate goals of profitability, differentiation and reputation get within reach.

Note: Craig Hajduk’s article appeared originally on Geekwire on July 23, 2013.