Show up with a perspective

What should we be building next year?
How should this GUI button operate?
Will our competitor’s announcement hurt us?

A product manager faces questions like these on a daily basis. Her responses, or lack thereof, quickly determine her standing and success in the organization. She is hired to lead with a crisp, reasoned perspective and get others aligned around a common product direction. Executives and peers lose confidence when a product manager punts, expecting others to figure out the bigger picture and make decisions. Consider the personal decisions you make for yourself:

How do you spend your money?
What food do you choose to eat?
Where do you choose to live?

I coach product managers to be the boss as they are outside of work. Take the responsibility personally and don’t expect others to blaze the trail. When answers aren’t immediately clear, the product manager has research and learning to do. She can begin by asking herself what factors influence the answer, regardless of what the answer turns out to be. Factors range from external (e.g., technology, economics, users) to internal (e.g., resources, products, customers). Since the product questions posed above are so common, I’ll discuss them further.

What should we be building next year?

Regardless of phrasing, roadmap questions are never casual queries for feature lists. The question is often a challenge to validate product-market fit and instill confidence in the product direction. Interpret the question as “what market forces and emerging technologies create new opportunities and require a change in our current approach?”

Given the impromptu nature of such critical questions, the product manager must always be clear on her product priorities. Near-term strengths and weaknesses in serving today’s customers and sales objectives must be balanced by longer-term opportunities and threats that require sufficient time to address.

How should the UI operate?

Engineering may be seeking clarification as they are coding. Pre-sales may be confirming how to address a customer’s need. This question is an opportunity for everyone involved to understand the use case – the aspects of a user’s daily life and their influence on product design and operation.

Avoid casual “do it like this” answers that lack sufficient context. By first articulating her initial understanding of the use case and asking others to confirm or amend it, the product manager increases the probability that sufficient information is available to make a good decision. Or, she exposes a critical question that must be researched before a decision can be made.

The product manager must bring a crisp perspective on customers and use cases, leading a conversation where everyone benefits with greater product context.

Will our competitor’s announcement hurt us?

Competitor-triggered questions require broader market context. Is this an expected move that we have already accounted for? Is this a surprise we should react to? Is this a neutral situation to monitor, but not immediately respond to?

Quickly (and accurately) categorizing the competitor’s news as positive, negative, or neutral is critical to keeping everyone focused and spending their time usefully. The product manager needs to clearly explain her analysis and the resulting implications for her business.

Regardless of the conclusion, she has an opportunity to articulate necessary changes to product strategy and execution by highlighting weaknesses or threats surfaced by the competitor’s news. Don’t waste a learning opportunity made possible by competitor’s news: an external trigger can facilitate often-delayed conversations.

Have something useful to say

I expect a product manager to always have something useful to say because she is immersed in all aspects of the business on a daily basis. Impromptu questions typically come in unique circumstances where busy executives and peers are open to new perspectives. These are valuable moments for the product manager to show her leadership.