This Cheat Sheet offers a guide to the different people product managers interact with, arms you with the skill set needed to catapult you to "great" status, and shows you how to acknowledge and resolve conflicts.
The roles product managers work with
The biggest surprise coming into product management is just how many people you have to talk to. Each function that product managers interact with has a different point of view and perspective. Your task is to listen to and then integrate everyone’s ideas to lead the company forward in the most profitable product decision possible. Here are the most common roles you work with:
- Product marketing. Product managers and product marketing managers can be either the same person or two different people working in the same organization with a different focus for each. While product managers focus on making sure that the right products are delivered to market, product marketing managers focus on ensuring that the messages that customers receive are effective at convincing customers to buy the product.
The two roles work hand in hand with marketing on creating specific marketing materials that customers use in making decisions. If you are a product manager, treat your product marketing manager as your closest buddy. You are both needed to make a product successful.
- Developers or engineers. Since you don’t actually develop the product, your developers or engineers are critical in making sure that the most successful product is created. Engineers have a solution-oriented mindset that they find hard to set aside if you’re mulling over your customer’s problem. Bringing them on board – and keeping them there – with your product vision is the most important place for most product managers to succeed.
- Executive management. For executives, product managers are the first level of direction setting in many companies. Executives and managers want to feel comfortable with your decisions. They are looking for you to make your case clearly and concisely on the basis of sound business thinking.
- Marketing. Marketing functions take the raw information about the product and transform it into great stories that convince your customers to buy your products. Marketing people know how to translate each of your product stories into a communication vehicle that keeps customers on the road to buying your product. Product managers and product marketing managers work closely with marketing when the message and the vehicle for the message need to be crafted.
- Sales. The term sales covers a variety of roles. Some salespeople are focused on helping the customers understand the technology of the product, some help with completing the nuts and bolts of the sale, and the most common are the folks who talk to customers and get them to agree to buy. Each and every one is focused on bringing in the money that is the life blood of the company.
Salespeople are a key part of the company orchestration which keeps the company profitable. Develop a close creative working relationship with your salespeople to advance the company’s (and your product’s) goals.
- Operations, finance, and support. The three functions listed here are the most common names for the roles that support the company actually delivering on the product promises that your company has made. Operations wants to manufacture and deliver products without spending too much time and effort. Finance certainly is keeping an eye on profitability on both revenue and the cost side. And support makes sure that each customer is able to use the product successfully.
Each department are partners in your goal of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Keep operations, finance, and support informed and on your side and they will help you achieve your goals.
Top skills for great product managers
Product management as a profession takes each individual to the limits of their comfort zones at one point or another in their careers. If you are an introvert, you are asked to be vocal about the needs of your product. If you are an extrovert, you need to spend a lot of time listening quietly. And if you are technical, your time focusing deeply on people’s needs and on the business strategy portion of your job may be difficult.
If your experience is on the non-technical side, at times you need to focus on the nitty gritty technical aspects of your product. Here’s a short inventory of useful skills for product managers to maintain:
- Communication. Communication is a two-way street. You should feel as comfortable listening as talking and the other way around if appropriate. What communication skills you need changes dramatically depending on the context. Forget one size fits all. Tailor your communication to the person, the function, and the circumstance.
Your own needs take a back seat to the needs of the situation in front of you. It may feel like you are a communication chameleon; you need to be deliberately different based on your audience. Learn to use those communication skills that are not currently part of your repertoire.
- Empathy. Empathy is the skill of putting yourself in another’s shoes. Practice challenging every one of your own assumptions about what is true as you focus on understanding another point of view. This skill is critical in product development and extremely useful in balancing differences in opinions.
- Analysis. Good product managers learn to enjoy sitting in front of an extra-large monitor and playing with a huge spreadsheet of data. Historical sales figures, adoption rates, click-through rates, total market sales, and bar charts galore help tell a coherent numerical story which supports your product vision.
Remember that supporting your point of view with cold hard facts is often the difference between getting the organization to buy into your plan and losing the argument. Learn to translate numbers into information using tables, charts, percentages, and possibly even statistics.
- Influence. Influence is the higher level practice of communication, practical psychology, and using cold hard facts delivered in a kind manner. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Seriously, the skill of influencing others is a keystone of product management success. Take a class in this important skill and then practice, practice, practice. Break down each interaction until you can build up your influencing skills to a high level.
- Forward thinking. Product managers plan for the upcoming: while standing in the present, they believe in the future. Product managers know what will happen when their product becomes available. Today’s world won’t exist anymore in that future. So, your thinking should be focused on the natural outcome of today’s trends at another point in time.
Your skill in interpreting and integrating the complex interaction of many factors is part of your success as a product manager. To start practicing this skill, imagine yourself at a past point in time. What was known then and what was the market outcome of different technologies? What didn’t happen? You are the futurist for your product, market and technology.
- Forward driving. All the skills in this list mean nothing unless projects are driven to completion. Create your vision, have your team buy into that future vision and then set challenging goals for them to deliver to. Keep your team motivated along the way and you will have become the product leader that makes a difference.
See also 10 Golden Rules of Project Management.
Acknowledging and resolving conflicts
The role of product manager is complex and involves a lot of moving parts. Unlike a car engine, adding a quart of oil isn’t useful to smooth over the inevitable friction that arises in the process. As a product manager, you are constantly re-evaluating your product situation based on the latest information. Sometimes changes need to happen to keep up with the current situation and that can cause conflict. Here is a short list of techniques to address and reduce conflict as it arises:
- Identify the problem. Conflict arises for many reasons. Often the reason for a conflict is a simple misunderstanding of what the underlying issues are. Have you heard the expression “We are in violent agreement”? This is when two people are agreeing on a topic from two different points of view. Only after some time does everyone agree that they are, in fact, on the same side. To avoid this scenario, start by having each side go through a couple of sequences of active listening.
In active listening, each party says what they are thinking. They are not interrupted and the opposite party is responsible for accurately echoing (stating back) what the other has said. The listening party does not add in their point of view. Once one party has finished, the process is repeated the other way around. If necessary, this process is repeated several times until each side completely understands the other’s point of view.
- Don’t “calm down.” In another conflict situation, one person may be quite agitated or excited. In this circumstance, dealing with facts is out of the question. The top priority is sorting out the emotions of the agitated party. Respond with slightly less energy than the person who is speaking (or shouting) and acknowledge their emotion. No, don’t shout back, but don’t start at low energy. For example, start with an energetic “It sounds like you’re really upset/angry/fed up.” When the agitated person responds to this statement, go for round two. As long as you have correctly named the emotion in play, that person’s energy level should drop a bit.
Keep this process up without focusing on the facts until the person is a bit calmer and the energy level is reduced. When addressing facts, you don’t have to agree with each interpretation. All you need to do is show you understand.
- Create careful boundaries. No matter how upset a person is, you must insist that no attacks are personal. The conflict can revolve around points of view, but not finger pointing. A key to resolving a conflict is for each person to really hear the other person. If one of the parties is attacking the other, resolution won’t happen. Stop the conversation and redirect it to focus on the situation.
- Remain curious. Sometimes closely controlling a situation by trying to micro-manage a discussion actually results in having less control. One way to loosen control is to avoid the 20-question method of asking yes-and-no questions until you guess the right one. Instead, focus on a comprehensive understanding of the situation. You then achieve two things: establishing all the facts and feelings about a topic and slowing the process down so that tensions can decrease.
Retaining an attitude of curiosity means asking non-judgmental and open-ended questions. These are questions that typically start with “what’ and “how.” They are questions that leave the respondent space to speak in their language. Practice remaining curious and you’ll have more success no matter what the stress.
Resolving each conflict depends on the particular circumstances. By applying the techniques in this list, you can gain enough information and trust from the people involved in the conflict to propose some possible solutions. Using active listening and open-ended questions while focusing on people’s emotions as well as the facts, you can focus on developing a great solution to the problem.