How to build trust, and other advice for product manager soft skills

Claire Lew’s article on the 9 mistakes you don’t know you’re making as a new manager is written specifically for people managers, but I found a lot of good advice in there that relates to the product management role as well. For example, on how to build trust with a team:

However, in our survey of almost 600 people, we found that team-building activities were in fact rated as the least effective way to build trust. What was rated as most effective? Being vulnerable as a leader, sharing your intention, and following through on your commitment. In other words, trust isn’t about building rapport – it’s about you making clear why you’re doing something, and then acting on it.

I’ve found this to be 100% true — both in my dealings with my managers over the years, as well as building trust with different teams. This is not your usual “listicle” article — every tip in here is gold.

Common mistakes less senior product people make, and other good hiring questions for PMs

Shaun Clowes shares some really good hiring advice in his post Picking good Product Managers – insightful interview questions. He starts it off with a good reminder that “bad product is worse than no product”:

A product manager without a systematic approach to their discipline has less context than the team members so is less likely to make good decisions naturally. Thus a bad product manager is more likely to cause the team to make mistakes than no product manager at all.

The worst part is that many experienced product managers will be convincing since they’re used to influencing organizations. No matter how convincing the vision a product manager might paint, they need to be able to justify it within the competitive environment, the strengths of the organization, the data that proves the market exists etc.

The dangerous rise of “crazy-busy” product managers

Over the past few months I have become fascinated by what I like to call “crazy-busy PM” thinking in the product management world. I’m sure you’ve seen a few tweets or articles about this yourself, but here’s a small sample, all from fairly big voices/blogs in the industry.

From 15 Things You Should Know About Product Managers:

It is common to go through the whole day as a PM, and get absolutely nothing done. Your calendar is stacked. The meetings are booked. There is a ton of talk, but nothing seems to have actually happened (outside of a bunch of new items for you to follow up on). Meanwhile your team is sitting there with important questions, you have two-hundred unanswered emails in your inbox, Slack is firing off notifications left and right, and you have a doctor’s appointment at 4:30pm you have to get to (because you’ve missed your appointment three times in a row). It is frenetic.

From The State of Product Leadership 2019:

The best PMs I know are crazy-busy humans who often seem caught in a precarious equilibrium between enthusiasm and frustration.

From Emotional Debt:

Being a product manager can be like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire – you’re on fire, everything is on fire. That’s how our days can feel. We have to take care of our product, our team, perhaps our finances. Our schedules are full from looking after other people or things. And these things invariably drive emotions; we care passionately about our products, we can love and loathe our stakeholders, and we feel an almost parental-like responsibility for our teams.

I think it’s time to have a real discussion about this, and the damage this kind of thinking is doing — not just to the individuals who work in such environments, but also the industry as a whole. In this article I’d like to discuss why I believe this is such harmful thinking, and what we — and you — as individual product managers can do about it.

Why “crazy-busy PM” thinking is harmful

First, it needs to be said that if your days are “frenetic” and “you’re on fire, everything is on fire,” you cannot possibly be doing your job well. That’s not my opinion, that’s just how your body works. There’s plenty of research and science around this, with the most succinct and relevant explanation probably being Cal Newport’s book Deep Work:

Then there’s the issue of cognitive capacity. Deep work is exhausting because it pushes you toward the limit of your abilities. Performance psychologists have extensively studied how much such efforts can be sustained by an individual in a given day. In their seminal paper on deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson and his collaborators survey these studies. They note that for someone new to such practice (citing, in particular, a child in the early stages of developing an expert-level skill), an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.

So the first thing to realize about “crazy-busy PM” thinking is that it is, quite literally, making you do sub-par work. In such environments you don’t have time or space to be thoughtful in your questions, feedback, and responses. So you are selling yourself short, first and foremost.

The second way this is harmful is to the future of the industry in general. Who in their right minds would look at a sentence like “it’s like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire – you’re on fire, everything is on fire” and go, “oh, that sounds great, sign me up.” How are we going to attract deep strategic thinkers to the role if that’s the expectation? We are doing the entire future of product management (and, not to be dramatic, but quality products in general) a disservice by perpetuating this myth that to be a good PM, you have to be a “crazy-busy human.”

How to be a more balanced product managers

If you are in a role like this, the first thing I want to say is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to change your environment. The way I look at it, your personal workflow is a product just like any other product you’re managing. And if your product is dysfunctional, you have to prioritize making it better.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying product management isn’t a stressful job. I know that it is, and our ability to care deeply about what we make is an essential characteristic of the job. But the irony is that “crazy-busy” works directly against that care. So we have to change it.

How do we do that? By viewing your workday through the same lens you approach all your projects. If a project/feature is going off the rails, there are two, and only two options: increase the timeline, or reduce the scope. A “crazy-busy PM” lifestyle means you are off the rails, and you need to do one of those two things to get it back on track.

Increase the timeline

First, you can increase the timeline. Give yourself — and everyone else — more time to do the things they need to do. Argue for more realistic timelines. Explain how it will result in higher quality products and happier and more effective teams. I often find that teams run at the speed of the product manager. So this might be as simple as just you slowing down. The rest of the team will follow.

Reduce the scope

The other option is to reduce the scope of what you do. There are two primary ways I can see that happening.

First, delegate more of your tasks to the rest of the team. Do you collect all feature request? Set up a system for the team to submit them in a central place (we use productboard, but anything will do), and look at it at a designated time. Are you doing a bunch of first-line support? Great, keep doing that! But also get some developers involved. They’ll understand customers better and lighten your workload at the same time.

The point is to think about areas where you do all the work or where you’re a bottleneck and you don’t need to be. In our case at Postmark, I frequently got overwhelmed with spec writing. So we changed that. The lead designer/developer on a project now writes the first draft of the spec (we have a really nice template), and the rest of the team (including me) comes in afterward to ask questions and polish to the doc. The added benefit? Those team leads now have a way better understanding of the work they’re about to do, and they also feel a strong sense of ownership.

The second way to reduce scope is to split the product, and hire another PM. The best time to hire a new PM is just before they become “crazy-busy”. I want to reiterate that “crazy-busy” is not a sustainable position for a company to be in, and in these environments PMs will burn out (and do sub-par work while they’re at it). If none of the other things in these recommendations is an option where you work, you have to hire more PMs. Your company depends on it.

I understand the need for framing the PM role like it’s a constant rat race that no one except us understands. We want to feel like we do important work, and we want to be valuable to our companies. But I have to say, “crazy-busy PM” thinking is not the way to go about that.

We chose to do a job that requires a very particular set of skills, just like every other technology job. So, with apologies, I submit that we are not that special. The way to prove our value is to build amazing products that customers love. But that shouldn’t be our only metric. The safety, efficiency, and happiness of our teams (and ourselves) is an essential part of that. Let’s not kill ourselves in the name of good product. It’s not necessary, and in fact, it’s extremely counter-productive.

Update on April 21, 2019: Also check out the follow-up post where I share our template and answer a couple of questions I received about this article.

Pinterest and the value of focus and moving slowly

Seth Fiegerman’s history of Pinterest and their approach to business and product is a breath of fresh air. In The anti-Facebook: Inside Pinterest’s slow and quiet rise, Fiegerman describes a company whose motto might as well be “move slow and debate things”:

Pinterest resisted throwing money at its problems, debated product tweaks extensively and did not rush to copy features that helped larger competitors achieve viral growth, employees said. Fond of touting itself as an anti-social media platform, Pinterest never introduced live-streaming or standalone messaging apps, nor did it become a primary hub for news. These features attracted press and users for other companies, but were also later abused by bad actors.

That is such a good example of a company that knows how important focus is. Their approach reminds me of Richard Rumelt’s succinct summary in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy:

Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.

The most important indicator for a project’s success: its problem statement

Lenny Rachitsky starts off his article on A three-step framework for solving problems with a really good insight:

Though many factors contribute to a project’s failure, nothing is more certain to cause a project to fail than a misunderstanding of the problem you are solving.

He spends the rest of the article focusing on how to develop and rally around a good problem statement, which is an essential skill to have for any product manager. I really like this framework and am keen to try it on my next project, alongside a version of Marty Cagan’s Product Opportunity Assessment that we’ve adapted for our specific needs.

When you deliberately design your remote work process, it’s good for the whole team

Helen Mou and Kevin Ochal share some good tips for remote teams in Making the Dream Work: Leading Distributed Product Teams. Most importantly, I agree that if you are deliberate about how you design your work process, it’s good for the whole team — whether they’re remote or not:

Instead of approaching distributed teamwork with the mindset of “we’re making it work, in spite of…” staying up late, working more hours, and spending more effort to be on a distributed team; we like to look at it as an investment in strength-building for your organization. Over time, this investment will build up your team’s trust battery, and create new habits, patterns, and behaviours that make any team — distributed or not — successful.

Related reading from me: Remote product management: challenges and opportunities.

Don’t use “technical debt” as an excuse to build bad products

Karolina Szczur makes some excellent points about using “technical debt” as an excuse for subpar products in The Technical Debt Myth:

Technical debt becomes a convenient blanket statement entailing frustrations, rushed decision-making, lack of process or architecture, and tedious maintenance tasks — the get-out-of-jail-free card for delivering a subpar experience.

It’s crucial to understand that as software and design grows older, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re dealing with debt. We must look deeper under the surface to find the root cause of bottlenecks we’re facing. Only when we carefully assess the symptoms can we find solutions to building products that last.

While we’re on the topic, the most useful article I’ve read on technical debt is Henrik Kniberg’s Good and Bad Technical Debt (and how TDD helps) from way back in 2013. He discusses good debt, bad debt, and the importance of having a “debt ceiling”. Highly recommended post, and still very relevant.

Product management lessons from the history of Evernote

Hiten Shah’s deep-dive into the history of Evernote is a very interesting read from a product management perspective. Of particular interest is the immense damage they inflicted on themselves due to a lack of focus on their core mission:

It’s hard to understate the damage that the branded products sold through the Evernote Market inflicted on the Evernote brand. It made absolutely no sense. Users didn’t want Evernote-branded tablet styluses or Evernote Moleskine notebooks or Evernote backpacks. They wanted an organizational and productivity product that worked.

The fact that the 2013 version of Evernote was widely considered the buggiest, most unstable version the company had released at that point added insult to injury. Rather than fixing the software problems that users actually cared about, Evernote started selling branded backpacks instead.

This is such a good example of the importance of knowing the core value of your product, and deepening that reach instead of trying to broaden into unrelated areas where you don’t have a core competency.

A step-by-step guide to product discovery from Tim Herbig

I’m a big fan of product discovery, and this extensive guide from Tim Herbig is a great resource:

The goal of this guide is to show you the extensive range a Product Discovery can have and how to set up and execute your own Product Discovery process. Which exact phases, tools, frameworks, and participants are needed depends on many individual aspects like the maturity of your product, which stakeholder environment you’re operating in, which resources you have at hand, etc.

I also like his definition a lot:

Product discovery is about ensuring that the right product gets built for the right audience. It’s the foundation for a successful implementation and launch phase later on and should give you the confidence to represent your product vision towards your team and stakeholders.

This is a guide I will return to again and again for inspiration.

Embracing our ethical responsibilities in the products we make

The transcription of Cennydd Bowles’s talk on ethics in technology at SustainableUX 2019 is absolute gold and a must-read:

It’s a mistake to separate technical capabilities from human capabilities. These things act together. They become interwoven, hybridized actors. Things change what people can do and how they do it. It is true to an extent that old sage that guns don’t kill people; people do. But a gunman, the hybrid actor of a human and a technology coming together, sure as hell can.

So we have to abandon this belief that the things we build are just neutral tools. We have to recognize therefore that we can’t wash our hands of the social, ethical and political consequences of our work. This can be a tough sell to some. Technology and algorithms and then the bedrock of it all, data, are often seen as clean, objective, neutral things.

He gives lots of practical advice on how to make ethical thinking part of our work — including viewing ethics as just another design constraint, like any other. And for a more… uh… “incendiary” approach to this topic, also see Mike Monteiro’s We Built A Broken Internet. Now We Need To Burn It To The Ground.


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