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How to think like a product manager

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Product managers come from all works and profession and sometimes the new role of being a product manager can be a challenge to new PM’s so I decided to create an article on how to thinking like a product manager

This article was originally posted on my website

  1. wonder about everything.
  2. Think deeper
  3. Think about incremental improvement
  4. Ask why
  5. Ask How
  6. Have an opinion
  7. Embrace conflict
  8. Develop empathy
  9. Actively Listen
  10. Prioritize
  11. Consider alternatives
  12. Make decisions
  13. Everything is an experiment
  14. See things to completion

Wonder about everything

Most people who excel at being a PM are naturally inquisitive people who love new and unfamiliar information and may find themselves learning new things for the sake of learning and feeding their curiosity. This wonder leads to curiosity which leads to asking the right or wrong questions which ultimately leads to learning something new.

Think deeper

PMs tend to not stop at surface-level thoughts and ideas. I find that a lot of product managers think deeply about a lot of things. Some might even be philosophers or have created their own philosophy. Being a pm is about figuring out how people, systems, and products work on a fundamental level so the ability to think deeper comes in handy.

Think about incremental improvement

Rome wasn't built in a day and neither are good products. It's important as a PM to understand you can't do everything all at once, having the mindset of constant improvements allows you to do the best work with the resources you currently have at your disposal and improve on it later. This cuts across all areas of your life, you should be trying to improve yourself, your relationships your connection to the universe, and your purpose in small in incremental steps. This of course is useful for digital products that tend to have relatively quick product cycles.

Ask why

Figuring out why, why do you exist as a human? why should you use that color? Why does Twitter not have an edit button? Why does the earth float in space? There’s a saying that asking the right question is half of the solution. As a product manager, you have to ask why and have an understanding of the motive behind most things you come in contact with and this goes beyond just surface-level thinking. Try using the 3 whys approach to allow you think deeply about the reasons for things, This just involved asking why 3 times in a row to get to the root of a problem. Example..

You: Why does Twitter not have an edit button?

Twitter: Because adding an edit button messes with our current data structure

You: Why does your current database not allow for editing?

Twitter: Because we never intended to allow people to edit tweets, tweet are created to be immutable once posted

You: why do tweets need to be immutable?

Twitter: ……

Haha, you get the point.

Ask How

As a pm, you have to wear many hats and a lot of the greatest things you learn might come from simply asking experts why, then how. How gives the “why” a more concrete expression as a series of steps or processes that lead to the desired results. This also affects the product, understanding how the user needs to get a job done in a series of steps. Alot of the work of the pm is figuring out the “how” that takes into consideration engineering, business, and product goals. One of my best things to do as a PM is asking engineers how they plan to go about a specific task, this allows me to learn from their process and also give suggestions of feedback as need.

Have an opinion

The worse thing you can do as a pm is become a “yes man/woman” constantly doing what you are told and not really having an opinion on anything. In fact id like to say that PMs are hired to have strong opinions about the direction the product needs to take. Learn to have opinions on everything and do not be shy to express them, if people on the team have different opinions it doesn't make them evil, you can learn how to influence without authority ( would write on this soon ) or make a compromise. Just make sure you have opinions the team is looking up to you for solid fact-based or even intuition-based opinions so please speak up.

So a quick story, I'm currently working on a product and the brand designer on the team designed a logo that I didn't like at all and I expressed this on the group chat, everyone else loved the logo except for me, I could have just overlooked it but I decided to speak up and this lead to some minor improvements to the logo ( though I wanted a different logo ) but these improvements actually made me like the logo a bit more. Also the back and forth with the designer earned me some respect from him as I push him to create something slightly better.

Embrace conflict

It's almost impossible to deal with people and there not being some kind of conflict that needs to be resolved. As a pm, you would need to facilitate a lot of these conflict resolutions as you are the connector between a lot of disciplines/departments. Do not shy away from this, embrace the conflict with a smile on your face, and develop ways to easily come to a resolution. You got this!

Develop empathy

Ah yes, Empathy has to be on this list. I'm sure we all know, but what really is empathy? I like to define empathy as being able to see, feel and experience information, thoughts and emotion from the perspective of another person. This a superpower skill that comes naturally to people like me, INFP’s 😊 and can also be developed over time. As a pm, you have to learn to take a moment to see things from the perspective of other people before you pass judgment on their work, abilities, or output. This is often not as easy as it sounds and I still find myself slipping up sometimes but it's something we all need to get better at.

On the project I'm currently working on, I am working with a designer and we didn't get off to a good start at all. In fact, I considered getting another designer, My approach was very demanding and I guess I had a lot of expectations of her which caused me to be overly critical to the point of being “trashy” with my words, as she put it 😅. I've had to remind myself many times to speak with more kindness and have also had to see things from her perspective, for example when she says she can't work on weekends to respect it. Developing empathy is an ongoing journey so just be mindful about it as you grow as a pm.

Actively Listen

Information is power when it comes to product management and the best way to get more information is to keep quiet and listen, Yes you have opinions but you have to spend a lot of time listening and gathering data. A large part of being a product manager is meetings ( for better or worse ). I kinda have a love-hate relationship with meetings, I love meeting with the product team and individual meetings but not a fan of standup or cross-functional meetings. But I do love listening and I find that If it's not a product meeting I spend most of the time muted and just listening. of course this isn't just with meetings, you have to listen to your users, your data, your intuitions. Cultivate the habit of being open for people to talk too and information would come to you from all over the place. Listen.

Prioritize

Everything on this list is important but this is critical, you can't do everything at once and products have cycles of development you have to pick what needs to be done and you have to do so in a way that creates the most impact on the business, the users and the overall product experience. This of course is hard and I think a lot of PMs have different approaches to this but its mostly based on a framework of

  • Must-haves
  • Needs to have
  • Nice to have

So lets me try to explain this, when an idea of a feature is presented to you, trust me they come every day. You have to think about firstly, is this a must-have? meaning is this critical to the business or product? If it is it gets the highest priority, if there are a lot of these must-haves then you have to prioritize them using a bottom-up approach, start with the base and add layers on top of it. This applies to “need to have” and “nice to have” as well. A lot of products stay within the must-haves and “need to have” and barely put any energy into the “nice to have”.

The twitter edit feature is really a “nice to have”…😉

Twitter stories was a “nice to have” but FOMO didn't allow them to skip that, it barely gets used.

Consider alternatives

They say there are many ways to skin a cat, this is also true in product, there are many ways to arrive at the desired outcome and it's important to consider all the alternatives. Don't stop at the first option presented. One way to go about this actively, is to ask your team to prepare 3 solutions to one problem and have everyone go over the pros and cons of the solutions, you can listen poke holes, ask questions, why and how and this would allow you to make a more informed decision. Always considered multiple approaches, this makes you a better product manager.

Make decisions

Pick a path and run with it until data or other circumstances reveal to you a better approach. You have to pick something and stand by it. We live in a universe of infinite possibilities try to not waste too much time deliberating over a decision. Pick now and pivot later, your job isn't to be wrong or right but to learn and make decisions from those learning.

Everything is an experiment

Everything you do needs to be taking as an experiment, of course, we want to make better experiments but you should always be willing and open to changes things based on new information that you might not have considered. So it's important to fall in love with the problem and not the solution because trust me the solution can go through a lot of changes over time and when it stops going through changes is when it starts dying.

See things to completion

Last but not the least, you have to ship. They say that if you haven't shipped something you can’t consider yourself to be a product manager and I agree, you really have to ship! Seeing things to completion is not easy at all, there are many factors that can stop you from being able to complete a project but this is why this role is soo challenging and rewarding, if you ship it's your fault if you don't ship its also your fault. I say ship even if it means cutting some crucial features, yes I said it. There is this idea move around the interwebs that goes like this “good products take time, so take your time and building for years” but id like to say that its only people with money to spend that think like this. You have to ship and ship as fast as you can, maybe when you get to work with millionaires you can build for a year. haha 😅

So I'm currently working on my first “professional” product since decided to become a pm full time this year and we are yet to ship, I really feel anxious about this but would give you updates when we ship. BECAUSE I MUST SHIP!!!!!!!!!

If you enjoyed this article and would love to drop in on my thought connect with me on twitter, thank you for reading :). I am available to help entrepreneurs and startups plan, build and launch their MVPs if think I’m cool and would like to reach out do so henry@thinksenpai.com


How to think like a product manager was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.