- JJ Rorie
5 Immutable Truths of Great Product Managers
Great product managers...
...have exceptionally high customer intelligence.
...are experts at building relationships.
... are master communicators.
... have uncommonly good judgment.
... are fanatical about prioritizing their time.
While these are not the only skills a product manager needs, they form the foundation from which to pull in order to navigate the chaotic and rewarding world of product management.
JJ [00:00:37] Hello and welcome to Product Voices. In this episode, I'm going to be talking about the five immutable truths of great product managers. This is the content of my book, and I'm really excited to say that the book is officially out. In fact, if you're listening to this podcast on the day that it publishes June 29th, 2022, that is also the very day that the book launches. So you can go get the book now on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Bookshop.org or your favorite online bookstore. But you may want to listen to this episode first to see if the book is something you'd be interested in. Hopefully will be.
[00:01:16] So when I started thinking about writing a book, my original intent was to generally. And now that I think back on it, magically help people be successful in product management careers by teaching them a specific great way to do it. One Way, One New Framework How to be a Great Product Manager. But here's the thing there's no one specific way. There are lots of ways that can work. Each product manager has a different experience than the next. Of course, there are some similarities hang out in any product management community, whether it be in Twitter or one of the awesome product management communities around the world. You're going to see and hear some common themes surrounding why product management is so awesome and so ridiculous and so stupid, and why we love it and hate it at the same time. You're also going to hear a lot of people say, well, it depends. When you ask how something should work.
[00:02:10] Product management is not a rigid, fully automated type of endeavor. It's nuanced. It looks and acts and behaves differently in every organization. Anyone who tells you there is only one way to do product management, frankly, is wrong. Product management is a system of interconnected activities and people and data incentives, objectives, predictions and decisions. And with all of this nuance, there's just no way that it can be the same across various companies. But I still wanted to find, or at least I had a hypothesis that there were some similarities across good product teams, across good product managers. So I really started to think about what were those conditions, what were those similarities that really kind of anchor all great product managers.
[00:03:02] And so I just kept doing research and looking around and all of the work that I was doing. I did find some underlying conditions that seemed to be common across all successful product managers. So the book is about those conditions. It's about those immutable truths, as I call them, that anchor product managers and skills that lead to success and truly are transferable from one company to another. So, you know, whatever industry you're in, whatever skill level you have in terms of experience level in, regardless of what type of product you're managing or working on, these are the skills that are immutable. They're timeless. They will transfer from one company, one industry, one product to another. The other thing I want to say about the book is that hopefully it's not one of those resources that you read and find it too complicated to implement, frankly, a failed if that's the case. Product management can be very complex, but the underlying skills that help us navigate that complexity aren't really that complicated. It takes work, it takes persistence. But these are skills that anyone can become adept in. I truly believe that. So I hope that anyone who reads the book will be able to kind of take it back to the basics and find a few nuggets, a few, you know, pieces of wisdom or a few tools or templates that will allow them to improve those underlying skills that are so important for us.
[00:04:42] Let's talk about the great product manager in their immutable traits. The product manager defines the long term vision of a product by keenly understanding customer needs, market dynamics and company goals, and then collaborates with a cross-functional team to execute on that vision. And before we get into these five immutable truths, I want to quickly define what I think as greatness in the context of the product manager role.
[00:05:09] Many organizations will grade a product manager by looking at their products results, mainly product sales or usage. Of course, I think that's probably going to be one way that we're always assessed as product managers. We are at least partly responsible for the business impacts of our products. But I believe this is largely ineffective because of all of the different variables that lead to a product's success. Of course, we as the product manager should help orchestrate the moving parts of those variables. But there's so much that we don't control, and I think we've all seen excellent product managers work on unsuccessful products, and frankly, mediocre product managers work on highly successful products. And I think that the variables, the team, the organizational systems around them either put them in a really good position or really bad position to succeed. And so I don't necessarily think that measuring a product manager solely by their products, analytics, their products, revenue or usage is a terribly effective way to gauge a product managers success or greatness.
[00:06:17] Now, another way that I see organizations measure success of a product manager, a product team all the time is basically output. Right. How many products or features did they release in a quarter and a year, etc.? Frankly, this is a terrible gauge for greatness. Product is the quintessential example of quality over quantity. I would much prefer one release that truly adds value to a customer or segment than ten releases that are really all fluff. Frankly, I'm still surprised at the number of organizations that have an implicit system of currency exchange -funding or prioritization is a loan that must be paid back in the form of output from the product team. Of course we've got to deliver things, but again, it's all about the value of what we deliver. So again, I don't I don't find output as a really good gauge of greatness for a product manager.
[00:07:09] Personally, I like to assess greatness in a product manager by looking for the following markers. These are not as quantifiable as product revenue or a skill score, but I have found that the folks who embody these have something in common, and that is those five core capabilities that help them navigate the world of product management. So some of those markers include great product managers, realize the importance of their role. They embrace the challenge that is product management. They feel comfortable most of the time with their workload, and they don't feel constantly overwhelmed by the job. Now, that's not to say that if you are overwhelmed from time to time, that you're not great at your job. Product management is hard. It is not an easy role, and so we're all going to get burned out and overwhelmed at time. But generally speaking, the great product managers have found a balance, right? I have found that great product managers aren't necessarily known as workaholics around the organization. Now no one is going to doubt their work ethic, but when they do feel overwhelmed, they take time off. They rejuvenate. They're transparent about when they're burnout, they trend, they're transparent about when things aren't working in their favor. I know that's not easy, but the great product managers are the ones that can say It's too important to my product, it's too important to my team. I've got to step away for a minute. Right. It's not an easy lesson to learn, but that's what I've seen in the most successful. You know, again, there's collaboration. They really, really kind of thrive on diverse perspectives and the creative exchange of ideas. They can change their mind when new persuasive information has been presented to them right there. Their speeches are subject matter experts, not just on product or their specific product. They're people who are asked for their opinion on a wide range of topics within the organization. And probably most important that I've seen is that they don't leave important things to chance. You can tell that they're very intentional about their learning, about connecting with others, about communicating about all of the things that are really important underlying a great product manager. They're very intentional about it. They always seem to have kind of that North Star of what they're doing. They don't often appear to be flailing along without some sort of direction and intention in their work. And again, I understand that those markers, as I call them, are not as quantifiable as your quarterly product revenue. And I get that there are some other ways that companies are probably going to measure success of a product manager, and that's okay, that's fair. But I ask all the leaders out there and all the product managers to look in themselves to find some of those markers and to say, okay, I'm not seeing these, so what can I do to help them be more successful? All right.
[00:10:14] So let's talk about these five immutable truths of great product managers. They are... Number one: Great product managers have exceptionally high customer intelligence. Number two: they are experts at building relationships. Number three: they're master communicators. Number four: they have uncommonly good judgment. Number five: they are fanatical about prioritizing their time.
[00:10:40] So let's talk a little bit about each one of those customer intelligence. Of course, great product managers have a high level of customer intelligence. Well, what does that mean, customer intelligence? Well, it means that not only do they understand and have knowledge of their customers, but they also have a deep appreciation and an almost an innate curiosity about the important factors that drive customers behaviors and actions. Right. So it's not just about knowing about your customers, but it's about knowing what's happening with them that's driving them or motivating them. Okay. So actually see four elements or levels of customer intelligence. And you can think of this as kind of a ladder, if you will, each building upon the other. So the most basic level is we've got to know customer characteristics. We've got to understand about those customers, whether it's a business, customer, consumer. We've got to understand the characteristics of those customers. You then have to understand the situations and conditions those customers find themselves in. If it's a business customer, the market conditions, you know, the economic conditions, etc. of it's consumer, economic, geographic demographic, etc., you've got to understand the situations in which those customers are so that you can then build up to more intelligence level. So the third and higher level of customer intelligence is their motivations and drivers like what's making them behave and act the way they do. Right. Some of those conditions in which they live and work impact that. That's why it's important to build those basic characteristics, situations, conditions, and then move up to what's motivating, what's driving them. Right. Again, a business would be their strategic direction, their vision, their goals, etc. Individuals would be what's driving them. What what motivates them? Is it their family? Is it their health, etc.? And then finally, kind of the crescendo of customer intelligence is really being able to identify customer pain points in unmet needs. You know, building characteristics and understanding conditions and situations and then even understanding their their drivers of of behavior. It's all designed for us as product folks to say, okay, here are some unmet needs of my customer base. And then ultimately we can go try to solve those. But good product managers understand kind of the first couple levels of customer intelligence, great product managers push beyond to understand kind of the psyche and the problems that customers have. So it's really important to understand. That level of information and insights about your customers. Okay.
[00:13:31] Let's move on to truth number two. Great product managers are experts at building relationships. You know, interpersonal relationships involve human beings, various emotions and personalities. There's really no one perfect formula for building relationships that works for all people in all situations. It's just not possible with how imprecise human beings can be. However, I have found that there is a tenet that underlies all great relationships between product managers and their teammates, and that tenet is confidence. Great product managers have earned the trust and confidence of their team, and they've also inspired a widespread belief in the product and its future. So when both of those are solid, you know, the team has trust and confidence in you as a product manager and the team has confidence in the product itself. Relationships typically are on good footing. Does it mean they're going to be perfect? But those you know, those things are really, really important because if one of those is absent, for example, they don't have a lot of confidence in you as a product manager. Guess what? That foundation of their relationship can be very shaky. If both are absent, they don't believe in you or the product. There's going to be very little chance for a productive working relationship because at the end of the day, you can be friends with someone, but if the work you're doing isn't productive, it's going to be hard to have that really good working relationship.
JJ [00:15:02] Of course, confidence doesn't happen by magic. There's lots and lots of ways that that we have to work to make this happen. I talk about a few in the book collaboration, open communication, empathy. I won't go into detail on all of those in the in the podcast, but it's really important that we embrace those things. We embrace true collaboration. We embrace real, open, productive communication. And we have empathy for every team member around us. I mean, confidence and trust is really built one conversation, one solved problem, one vulnerable moment, one success, even one misstep at a time. This transactional confidence builds up over time until you have real, lasting trust in one another.
JJ [00:15:48] Think about it just just quickly, like the folks in your what I call your ecosystem, right? So it's everybody that has an impact on your product. The people in your ecosystem are the people who help bring ideas to the table. They help scope, vet, validate those ideas. They help fund the products. Are you thinking about those folks with your relationships? Who designs the product? Who helps create the user experience? Who develops sources, manufacturers, the product? Prices, sales market supports. Right. All of these people. And they could be that could be, you know, a couple dozen people. All of those teammates are critical for you to have good working relationships with. So it's really important to map that out and say, okay, these are the people that I need to be very intentional and consistent about building and maintaining relationships with.
JJ [00:16:42] I actually have a tool called a relationship status chart that I think is really important for product managers to use to understand the current status of the relationships of all those people that you've mapped out. Right. So let's say there's 20 people on your relationship map that have helped you or that do help you with your product. Well, each one of those 20 people you have a current relationship with, even if even if you're new or they're new, that's a new relationship. But you have some current relationship status. And it's important to be very clear about where each of those relationship stands. Okay. So the status chart, again, you can read about it more in the book. There's also going to be some resources on greatproductmanagement.com or product voices.com. But basically it it has you plot people on this chart based on those two important you know tenants if you will confidence in me as the product manager and confidence in the product itself. Right. Some people will have confidence in you, but not the product. Some vice versa. You need a realistic picture of that current status. So then you can do something about it, right? Sometimes you'll. You'll have someone who's confident in you, confident in the product they've got what I call it. They kind of have this status of relationship of being a champion. Well, you'll just need to foster that. It's already a healthy relationship and you just need to make sure that you foster those champions. Well. You also may have some folks that fall on the bottom quadrant, which you need to repair those relationships. Great product managers are very intentional about understanding current status of all the important relationships around them and doing something about them, whether it's just fostering and nurturing, or whether it's doing the hard work of repairing.
JJ [00:18:32] Number three, great product managers are master communicators. Nat Turner has a saying Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity. I love that. I think it's so important. Now, what I try to do is simplify it down to a couple of key variables that can improve communication. I'm not a speech coach. I am not someone who can help you become a keynote speaker. However, in the context of the work that we do, what I believe is mastering communication when it comes to product management. It's all about connection and it's about clarity. Okay. So if we can simplify it down and say, if I'm trying to improve my communication skills, I'm going to focus on connection and I'm going to focus on clarity. That's going to help you. Communication is meaningless if our messages are ambiguous or if they don't connect with our desired audience. What's the point? There is no point, right? So to help us with connection and clarity, there are a few things we can do, right? I mean, to connect better with others.
JJ [00:19:48] Work on storytelling because telling the why behind what we do is really important. Intentional listening, which is really about hearing them not worrying about us so much. And then probably most importantly, is adapting to the audience. Great product managers go from one meeting to the next, and in one meeting it's all about the minutia of with the engineers and what we're going to build and the the absolute, you know, details. And then the very next meeting, we've got to turn around and pivot to talking about the vision and the high level and, you know, kind of impressing executives. Well, we've got to be good at moving from one audience to the other. Right. So, again, kind of connecting with others. A few things you can do to help is storytelling intentionally listening and adapting to that audience.
JJ [00:20:41] Now, when it comes to clarity, it really comes down to being concise and being consistent. Okay, so again, I'm trying to make this as easy as possible. These are things that have helped me. These are two things that have helped the product managers that I've seen be really good. Product management and all of these skills that we have to have can get so overwhelming that if we try to kind of strip it all down to its basics is are there a few things that we can do to improve ourselves? We don't have to make these monumental leaps in skills. We have to just improve ourselves slightly, move the needle, if you will, slightly just enough to connect with someone a little bit better to make our messages and our communications slightly more clear today than they were yesterday. That's what this is all about, right?
JJ [00:21:36] So clarity comes down to being concise and being consistent. It's really difficult to be concise when we're communicating, especially when we're caught off guard or when we're not prepared. So being very concise in the way that we communicate things is one of the most important ways that we can improve our communication skills. All right. And then ultimately, there are some things we just simply have to repeat, right? But we have to be consistent in certain messages that we need the people around us to really grasp. Right. The why behind the customers, the vision that we have for our product. These are things that we absolutely have to make sure that on any given day, the people around us and our teammates that are working on our product with us understand. And I'm sure you can imagine, you know, one of your executives or somebody saying, hey, do you know the company's vision statement? And, you know, like being a deer in the headlights and don't have a clue, it's probably because you heard it once in an all hands meeting a year ago and you're not sure. Right. So it doesn't mean that you don't know some of the the, you know, principles of what we're trying to do as a company. But if there are true things that are really important for your product, so your product vision statement, your product strategic pillars, how we will win statements, whatever it is that's important for you to ensure that your teammates understand. Repeat them. Talk to them about it in every meeting if you need to. Right. Just make sure that we're all clear about what those messages are.
JJ [00:23:22] So, again, when it comes to communication, it's all about connection and clarity. Connection is about telling stories, telling the why behind it, really listening to them and then adapting to who you're talking to. Clarity is about being concise and being consistent.
JJ [00:23:41] Okay, the fourth truth of great product managers is that they have uncommonly good judgment. This is the truth that I find most people are most intimidated by, or that they have a hard time really grasping how to improve themselves on this. The truth is, judgment can feel quite nebulous to folks. People who display good judgment sometimes seem as if they're working off a gut feeling, right? But it's really a combination of experience and then some key behaviors that they've learned. To build into their habits that allow them to make better decisions, right. Judgment and decision making somewhat go hand in hand. It's not exactly the same thing, but basically it's it's, you know, having the ability to make better decisions. Right. So the definition, according to Merriam-Webster of judgment, is the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing. Right. And so here's the thing about good judgment, especially in product management. It does not mean we always pick the right answer. In fact, product management doesn't often have a right and wrong answer. So let me let me state that again. Let me repeat that, because it's really important. Good judgment does not mean that you always pick the right answer. In fact, sometimes you can't even discern what is a clear right and wrong answer. Right. We're often choosing from several good options, and we choose one that we believe is best according to the information we have at that time. But sometimes we get it wrong, even with good intentions, it's just part of the job. So what great product managers do is not get it right every time, but they set themselves up for making better decisions, having better judgment through their ongoing efforts on a couple of fronts. They challenge biases when they're gathering information and they become comfortable with ambiguity or constantly gathering information. And by by virtue of cognitive biases, which are very common, we run the risk of that information being biased. So great product managers are quite intentional about trying to avoid biases as much as possible, and then they're also working on being comfortable with ambiguity. We very rarely have all of the data, all of the answers laid out in front of us in product management. So we have to be comfortable with saying, I don't have the full picture, I don't have all the information. There's no way to know if this is 100% risk free, but I have to act anyway. So great product managers improve their judgment by challenging biases and becoming comfortable with ambiguity.
JJ [00:26:31] Okay. Let's move on to the fifth immutable truth of great product managers. They are fanatical about prioritizing their time. Great product managers are really focused on doing the things that will make the biggest impact on their product. If something doesn't have a direct or even an indirect effect on the product, it's probably not important enough to do so. Prioritizing the work that makes the most impact on customers in our business. It's one of the most pressing challenges for every product manager out there. We all seem to flail around on this a little bit and tend to not prioritize enough. The great ones are. Again, I've used this word several times. They're very intentional about the way that they put their time into the things that matter most. Now, it's not just about the work they do. It's actually their entire lives, right? Because time is finite. We get the time, we have it no more. And it truth be told, I don't think we necessarily need more time. We just need to better use the time that we have. We each have exactly the same amount of hours in the day, week, etc., right? So each of us has to prioritize what matters to us across our entire lives. Right. So that's actually how I coach product managers and how I've seen the really great ones start their time prioritization. It's what matters to me across my entire life. I'm personally not a big fan of the work life balance or, you know, that whole kind of traditional way of thinking about it. I just don't think we live in this neatly bifurcated world of work in life anymore. I think we, you know, most of us work remote or at least in a hybrid way. We work in different places around the world than our teammates. And so we often don't have this 9 to 5 job, if you will, can be both good and bad. Right. We have to be very focused on kind of holding ourselves accountable for not working too much. But what that does in in my experience and in my opinion, is it makes it even more important for us to have this kind of I call it a contentment mix, right? A mix of what matters in our lives. And that may be family work, exercising, volunteer work, whatever it is. Right. But really kind of bucketing those out into, you know, just high level and of this is how much time I want to spend on these things in my life. And you may have five, six, seven buckets and that's it right in your contentment mix. But I think it's important to start there because if you don't have an understanding of I want to spend half my time with my family, everything else has to work in the other half of my time, right? If you don't have that kind of set in your values and in your goals, then it's it's easier to wake up one day and say, God, I spent 75% of my time literally on work last week. Sometimes we'll do that. But if you do that too much, then that burns us out, right? So start there. What's your contentment mix? What? What what are the things that make you happy, that make you productive, that kind of keep you on a good balance across your life? Then you can start to look at how you spend your time at work. Right? I have a tool called the Vital Time Tool, right? Vittorio Acronym stands for Vital, Important Transactional, Ancillary and Learning. And again, what I do and I'm, you know, have to hold myself accountable to do this as much as possible as well. Sometimes I slip, but one of the things I do is I look at my calendar, I look at my week, look at my month, and I categorize everything I do. Is it vital to my product? Is it important to my product? Is it that transactional stuff that gets in our way? A lot important stuff, sending emails, clarifying requests, communicating, etc., you know, all the, you know, slack messages that we reply to transactional is going to happen. But am I spending too much time on that? What about ancillary? Those are things that other people should do I should be aware of, but not really doing and then learning in my spending enough time on that. Right. So if you can kind of, you know, either color code your calendar or literally do a Miro board with all of the things that you know are vital, important, transactional, ancillary or learning. And if you're too skewed one way or the other, guess what? You need to do some reprioritisation. Again, I know this sounds simple. That's the point. None of this is really rocket science, if you will. But it's so important and so easy to forget as we're going through our product management job.
JJ [00:31:15] So those are the five truths of great product managers. Number one: they have exceptional customer intelligence. Number two: they're experts at building relationships. Number three: they're master communicators. Number four: they have uncommonly good judgment. And number five: they're fanatical about prioritizing their time.
JJ [00:31:37] But the fact is, I don't really see them as individual troops as much as I see them as an interconnected foundation that really makes navigating the world of product management easier. They don't really exist in silos, right? They interact and impact each other consistently. You know, the more you know about your customers, the better you can communicate the why in story form, and that's going to build confidence. And guess what? That's going to improve your relationships, right? If the more you know about customers, the better you can prioritize. Again, it just really impacts each and every one of the truths. And so that's why I coach you and the product managers that I work with on looking at each of these truths, kind of assessing yourself on each one and finding a progress plan. I have one for myself. I'm constantly working on these five things. I know that I'm good at all of them just because, you know, I've done them for so long and I've, you know, been in product management for so long. But I also know that I can improve upon each and every one of them. This is not really a destination. It's more of a journey. You can absolutely get to a certain point of mastery for each one of these truths, but you're probably always going to be improving upon them and learning more about ways that you can do each one of these better.
JJ [00:33:00] So those are my parting thoughts for you. Please. You know, understand that these aren't necessarily the most complex things you'll learn and do in product management, but they're absolutely bedrock to your success. I truly believe that I've seen it across so many different product managers that I've worked with. The ones that struggle tend to not have, you know, this foundation, the ones that seem to navigate the product management world better than the rest of us. They seem to have mastered most of these, and that foundation is really important for their ongoing success and, you know, healthiness and happiness. And it's really, really an important part of what we do in product management. So, again, thank you for listening. Thank you for being part of the Product Voices community. If you'd like to buy the book, you can do so on Amazon and Barnes and Noble on Bookshop.org. Any of the major book online retailers would love to have your thoughts.
JJ [00:34:07] If you do buy the book, reach out to me at JJRorie@greatproductmanagement.com. Would love to hear your thoughts on that or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn and let me know what you think of the book and what you think of the Product Voices podcast. So thank you again for listening to Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
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