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Industry Insights
 min read

Product leaders share ‘best advice’

The role of a product manager in digital businesses is more important now than it has ever been before.

To understand the role further ourselves, we interviewed highly experienced Product Managers and we wanted to pass on the knowledge of those in our network on to our community.

One of the key questions we asked was...

"What is the best advice you've been given, or would give to another PM?

1. Quality vs. quantity

There's been a continuous theme. When I was at university some of the advice I was given was that if you try to do too many things and get involved in too many different clubs and activities and classes, you're going to exhaust yourself and you're going to reach a threshold where your work quality will go down. You're a finite person, you can only do so much. Figure out what your priorities are and only do those without getting too exhausted, or at least have a strong plan for how you're going to build in time to recoup in between all these different things that you're trying to manage and do.

When I started at Intuit we had a lot of Brown-bag sessions and sessions with leaders, and I found it interesting that same feedback came back. The way that it's usually phrased within business is "don't be afraid to say no." Often times, especially early in your career, people will ask you to do pretty much everything and if you accept all of it then all of a sudden, you're going to be trying to do everything for everyone, and something is going to get dropped in there. You must be able to figure out not only how to prioritise as a product manager, but when to say no and how to do that in an effective way.

- Megan Caywood, Head of Digital Strategy at Barclays.

2. Perception is reality

A long time ago when I was still an engineer, I walked into a performance evaluation and my manager gave me a bad evaluation. I sat there a little surprised, and I said, "Hey!" and I listed all the things that I had done. He said, "Rags, perception is reality". I was kind of mad at him, but over time, especially as I've been doing more of a product role, I realised it was actually quite a profound bit of feedback that he had given me. If you think about it, a product manager’s role is about managing multiple stakeholders at once. You have engineers and designers who they work with, on one hand, then customers, sales, internal clients, their managers, the people who report to them on the other side.

It's very easy in that situation to compartmentalise information to different groups. For instance, if you're talking with engineers and they give you an update, it's very easy to forget to give that update to the marketing team. Time and time again, what you run in to is that there is dissimilar information that different people know that you work with. That basically creates a perception among people that is very different for the same product that everybody is trying to build together.

- Rags Vadali, Product Manager at Facebook.

3. Manage your biases

The best piece of advice I’ve been given has been around managing my own personal biases, and any inertia I might have. As a product manager, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of, “I think this is a good product” or, “I think this is a good idea”, or, “I think this is a good feature, so we should go do it. If I think it’s good, everyone will think it’s good.”

It’s important to know that every decision you make is influenced by the environment you’re in, the cultural background you have, the team you’re with. When you begin to unpick all the biases that go into a product, it makes it easier to manage them and then try and manage them out. Ultimately, you’re building your product for your customers, not for yourself, and if you can manage biases then you can manage any inertia that you’ve got, then you can build a product customers really want.

- Adam Warburton, Head of Product at The Co-op

5. Bring people along the journey

Bring people along with you, so that the product development process doesn’t just consist of businesspeople making decisions, which then go straight to a developer. What we really need is for the developers involved to understand the business priorities and what trade-offs are being made. A lot of times, they can make suggestions that help shape how you go about developing a certain feature, such as an epic or part of the division for your product or launch. One of the things that worked practically before a big product launch was to have a whole day where we wrote ideas on index cards, the kind of big epics of features we needed to deliver as a minimum product. We sat there, everyone rearranged the cards, and we all talked about what order made sense and the dependencies involved. The developers had a lot of valuable insights and we all agreed by the end of the day (me and twenty developers!) what we were going to build, and they knew the reasons just as well as I did.

The second piece of advice that I think has been really valuable for me, particularly in a start-up, is: Know your IP and know where you want to differentiate. In bigger companies, but particularly for start-ups, when you have limited resource and you’re trying to get something out there so customers can use it and you can get the feedback, don’t build everything from scratch. You have to actually understand your point of difference, the part you’re really going to focus on and make better than anything else. There are lots of other great tools and plugins, as well as other things, that companies have worked on and you can bring in to support you, while you focus on the one or two things that really matter.

- Anita Rajeswaren, VP of Product at Wefarm.

6. Would you invest?

One of the best pieces of advice was given is, never work for a company that you wouldn't invest your own money into. By being there 8-10 hours a day you are investing yourself in that company. So only go and work for a company where you would expect that company to have a great outcome or perhaps be the market leader in its space.

Second, only work on products that you deeply care about. It's hard to be the Evangelist for a product and understand the customer of that product if it’s not something that you are crazy about yourself.

- Dave Thomson, Head of Product at Skyscanner.

7. Communicate with your stakeholders

Make sure that you have open lines of communication with stakeholders at a regular cadence. A lesson I learned recently was that silence from your stakeholders in the business does not equal a “yes” or an affirmation for your vision. It can mean that they're delaying a “no”, so it means that you're building up a risk if you're leaving the silence too long. One thing I make sure that I do is have weekly touch points with groups of stakeholders in the same room where you're checking in on the goals and making sure that people feel satisfied with the direction that the project is going.

Also making sure that nothing has changed in terms of someone's outlook. If you can't get your group of stakeholders in the same room, then make sure that you're doing a weekly email with three to five bullet points highlighting what you're working on that week, what's changed, when you expect to release certain things. Make sure that you're getting that in front of people's faces as often as possible because then if they disagree, at least you can say "well I told you a while ago", which is helpful!

- Rosemary King, Director of Training Products at Mind the Product.

8. Embrace the unknown

When I was working on an enormous project, things were going wrong, and it was all getting too much, I had the chairman of the company I was at say “I get why this is hard, we’re trying to do things that have never been done before. But if you do it, you’ll look back on it in ten years and think ‘that is amongst the best things I’ve ever done in my whole life’”. He was right.

When we launched the Three mobile network, nothing worked. But we slowly made things work and we slowly delivered a successful product. It was really tough and seemed impossible at times, but we did it. That was a few years ago now, but the bond between me and some of the other team members that were there, still stands really strong because we went through that journey together.

- Ken Johnston, Chief Product Officer at MessageMedia.

9. Roll with the punches

Very early in my career, I was working for a late-stage start-up and coming back to a lot of people having a good views on what the product should be. I had some very challenging stakeholders and after a particularly bad day, one of my senior colleagues told me to just “roll with the punches”. That has stuck with me because it’s really about trying not to take everything so seriously. It’s not personal and it’s actually, for me, just quite good if people are dedicated and invested in what you’re trying to do, so I try to remind myself of that quite often – to roll with the punches.

The second is a newer thing and again it comes back to the idea that product is problem-solving, growing metrics, and falling in love with the mission and not the product. Product is very visual it can become very opinion-led, very emotion-led, and I think sometimes it’s more important to think about the mission you’re trying to solve.

- Christina Buch-Peterson, Product Consultant (currently Principal Consultant at Equal Experts.