I am not shy to confess that I am admittedly still very much a novice in Product, having just made the switch into this space 2 years ago. This process of learning Product Management has been at once exhilarating and exhausting. The role has pushed me to grow and has challenged me in ways I never knew. Two years later, my team shipped a few things, I still have a team that agrees to work with me, and I am not totally clueless every time a new problem springs at me from the left field. While the approach to every problem is different, there are some guiding principles that I always return to help guide me in the right direction each time. For those of you who might be curious (and for future me who may need a reminder), here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about Product Management distilled below:
- Be a Champion of the Why
Everyone likes to jump to the solution. Features and solutions are sexy, they are easy to understand and often have exciting things like UX designs and copy around it. Problems on the other hand, are not. Problems are at first amorphous and undefined, intangible and unknown. It is the PM’s job to crystallize the problem and be its sounding alarm, even when it might at times feel pedantic and a bit of a buzzkill. As a PM, it is your job to be the champion of the problem. Be the person who constantly asks the room — what is the problem at hand that we are trying to solve? What does the user want? How do we know if what we’re building to solve this problem is actually working?
The Why should always be your team’s guiding North Star. Be an advocate of the Why and use it to ground and inform what the solution needs to be, and never the other way round.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
When I was in Finance, I had this insurmountable fear of asking stupid questions. There always seemed to be this stinging rhetoric of “shouldn’t you know how to do this by now?” hanging over my head. Even as a fresh grad entering the workforce for the very first time, I felt like I always had to have all the answers and feared being judged for it if I didn’t. When I first transitioned into a Product role, I had to confront this irrational fear front and center. I felt like I was drinking out of the fire hose on the daily just trying to learn the product process, with burning questions accumulating inside my head at every minute. Questions like — How far in advance of development should I schedule a kick-off? When should I engage design and engineering? How do I schedule a user testing session? — haunted me as I sat paralyzed with fear at times not knowing what the next step in the process was, given that I had never gone through it before. My manager took me aside and told me that even if I had prior product experience, it is only natural that I would have to re-learn the product process at each company, given the idiosyncratic nature of product development as a discipline. I was only handicapping myself and limiting my rate of learning by not asking enough questions. As the PM, you don’t need to have all the answers. But it is your duty to figure out all the right questions to ask to the right people in order to inform on the best possible next steps to take.
3. Ruthlessly Prioritize… for Yourself!
When I first made the switch to product, I was at once amazed and overwhelmed by the number of things I could do each day to advance my goals. There’s always a never ending list of possible tasks on my to-do: urgent, deadlines, planning, small asks, big asks…… The entrepreneurial nature of the PM role means that there was no one to dictate my calendar or tell me what I should be doing each day — it was now up to me to decide what gets done, and what problems I should prioritize tackling first. Manage your time the way you would a product. Always ask yourself this — Are you doing the most impactful thing you could be doing right now? Rinse and Repeat.
4. Document, Document, Document!
I’m a big fan of documentation and am proud to call myself a prolific producer of them — Requirements doc, Product Opportunity Assessments, Epics, Stories, Test plans…. The list goes on. I am a documentation evangelist because I am a firm believer in the power of documentation. A good document can keep a meeting focused, set an anchor for cross team collaboration and evidence a decision point for reference over the long term. Ideas and words tend to float around in an organization — write them down if you want them to stick.
5. Have an Insatiable Curiosity
Always be hungry to learn more. Set up google news alerts. Read books, listen to podcasts, attend a conference. Be indiscriminate in your field of learning, even if it’s not directly related to your product or line of work. Smart people and good ideas stimulate your brain and prime it for creativity.