The Evolution of Product Managers:

6 Important Areas Often Overlooked by Product Leaders

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Attending Product Management Festival 2017 (PMF 2017) in Zurich, Switzerland, and meeting amazing product professionals inspired me to go deeper into six important areas that are often neglected or entirely overlooked by product leaders.

PMF 2017 Archive

Krassi Hristova | Snapchat

As Product Managers, we take care of all sorts of things. From communication with countless parties on endless meetings to prioritizing and adding features to the backlog in hopes the product we’re working on stands out and shines. As we focus on creating a routine, it’s easy to forget some of the core key points that add value to our product and the entire team behind it.

1. Data is the new oil

You can never have enough of data. You will never fully know who your customers are. Period.

Product is an industry of trends, continuously shifting with customers’ needs and expectations. Customers evolve, and so do the products they use. Or is it vice versa?

Our responsibility is to learn from reliable data. In addition to the valuable data collected from the users of our product, external factors such as local trends, laws, news, and even weather conditions can significantly shape product related decisions.

Team’s perception of who their customers are can differ, too. Collected data may be interpreted differently in relation to individual perceptions. Good product managers tolerate and accept diversity in perceptions. Take diversity as an opportunity to explore a new set of data which could lead you to valuable discoveries.

Are we doing the right thing with our data? Yes, if you are solving customers’ problems.

India’s e-tail Flipkart uses real-time data-based predictions to customize their homepage based on customer’s past interests and patterns of behavior. Flipkart understands no two humans are same so they occasionally ask simple questions that help machine learning technology understand the user better and deliver better recommendations. With this amazing feature, the e-commerce platform literally learned to continuously provide with a better user experience that the customers love. As Ram Papatla from Flipkart shared on his PMF 2017 keynote:

We tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

2. Overdose with Empathy

Focus on your customers, and everything else will follow.

Every once in awhile everyone has a problem understanding and sharing feelings. In business, the lack of empathy can be observed everywhere – in product teams and with stakeholders, but most importantly in regards to customers.

All it takes is to observe actual users when they use your product. Give it to a child, an elderly person, or someone you randomly meet. We assume we know what’s best for our users, but this exercise might prove us wrong. It’s a chance to detect and fix problems we would have otherwise missed.

Observe a child, an elderly person, or someone random use your app and learn.

Rio Akasaka | Google

Accounting for extreme deviations in product development comes at a higher price point than developing for the mainstream population. Empathetic product managers build products for all users, regardless of where they statistically fit into. Instead of seeing users as clones of own needs and habits, good PMs focus on actual users and their needs. As Rio Akasaka from Google suggests:

Empathy should be a part of every product management toolkit.

This is where managing corporate priorities and a product at the same time becomes a challenge. Improvements will take time. You cannot overdose with empathy as much as you can with patience. Be impatient just as your customers are, but stay aligned with your vision to reduce distractions.

Promoting empathy usually means going against the stream. Be an evangelist to all the stakeholders – from the leadership to the development teams and product community – but also listen to their feedback. Prioritize positive and negative feedbacks, and execute. It’s all about persistence that earns you trust. Trust, on the other, may not give you authority, but it definitely gives influence.

3. Accessible Ripple Effect

Nearly 1 in 5 users in the US and 1 in 7 users in the EU have a disability. However, difficulties with accessibility go far beyond disability.

Our users may be parents holding their child in one hand and our product in the other. They may have difficulties understanding the language, or they left their glasses in the car. Or they are accessing your application from a slow phone in a subway station with poor access to the internet.

Try using your product under imperfect circumstances. Chances are good you will find ways to improve your application for every user. Developing with accessibility in mind will create a positive ripple effect on all users. Rio Akasaka from Google says:

A small change can have an outsize impact.

A fantastic example of a successful product showcasing the effect of accessibility is Google Maps. With clever design and simple questions, Google Maps helped people with disabilities report and log points of interests that are accessible by wheelchairs. This approach became so popular that the questions extended to other areas, eventually creating a slew of contributions from the “mainstream users” in all areas of location-based information gathering and rating.

4. Fail Quickly

Customers don’t get any value until you launch the product. Value has to be measurable and revenue is only one measure of value related to product success. As Chris Long from Shopify indicated:

If you don’t measure value, how can you build more of it?

Or not build more of it at all.

Failure is an incredibly useful form of value. The faster you hit the wall, the faster you’ll know what needs fixing in your product, team or organization.

Measuring the value of your team’s culture and measuring product value are surprisingly similar. The key difference is in metrics. In order to build more of that value, you have to know what is it that you measure. If we look at the value of a team culture, we have to take into account what that culture supports and disagrees with in order to measure the value achieved over time. Team culture delivers value through mutual collaboration and transparency.

Change doesn’t produce value until the outcome is felt and feedback from the users (whether customers of team members) is obtained. Seemingly, the value is measured over time in all cases.

How often we’ll measure value, depends on our productivity. The goal is to grow value slowly and incrementally. Embrace small experiments, no matter how risky they are, the goal is to improve not succeed. Strive for continuous improvement, not perfection, in respect of either your product development, team culture or organisational restructure.

5. Embrace Challenge

Surround yourself with challenging tasks, but more importantly with challenging people. The feeling after conquering both is indescribable. Pushing yourself to the limits, especially in uncomfortable environments, helps you discover your hidden capabilities. As Rebekah Mueller from Audible said at PMF 2017:

Product management is about building relationships.

Conflicts, blame, personality clashes and promoting competition are all toxic to the working environment. Bring on the wisdom and persistence to embrace challenging situations and people involved. Challenge yourself to deal with challenging folks and you would be surprised at an outcome for sure!

6. Good Vibes

PMF 2017 Archive

Krassi Hristova | Snapchat

Product Manager’s value can be measured by strong and healthy relationships holding the team together. Be kind and make everybody feel good and respected after working with you. “Make your influence and impact felt” suggests Krassi Hristova from Snapchat. Help colleagues grow their own influence. You are all in it together and don’t underestimate famous three musketeers motto. Your leadership directly impacts the product, the team and the overall organization’s success.

Product Manager’s value can be measured by strong and healthy relationships holding the team together.

Don’t forget to celebrate achievements. Give recognition to every small win you and a team make. Spreading good vibes in working environment earns you trust and respect in a long run. Don’t hesitate to make a fuss over everything. Let it be heard as nothing comes without an effort.

Back to reality…

PMF 2017 Archive

Adrian Zwingli | PMF 2017 Chairman

Successful teams shape and build successful products, but it’s not that simple as it sounds. Human behavior seems easy to understand, but it’s hard to master in a real working environment.

In closing, successful product managers

  • Measure, prioritize and use data
  • Understand and share feelings of others
  • Value extreme users
  • Risk failures and learn from them
  • Aren’t afraid of challenging tasks & people
  • Build relationships

How will you shape your leadership presence in the future?

Think human wise and execute!