Written By Sophia T. McMillan
There is a huge amount of skill and activities you can work on to improve as a Product Manager. In addition, there is a similar amount of resources you can reach out to for perspectives, knowledge, and insights. But there is one particular, potentially career-changing activity known as “soft” skills, that often gets lost in the masses of advice.
The Primary Soft Skill
If you don’t focus on “soft” skills first, you won’t be able to represent the customer at the table, or understand the depth and the width of the business context. In order to meaningfully convey visions, goals, the problems to solve for your team and to balance stakeholder needs; you have to start with one primary soft skill in particular: listening.
By listening, I don’t just mean doing the usual homework: talking to everyone, taking notes, adding endless new “requirements” to the backlog and reorganizing it according to what you heard word by word. If you just did that, you’d be no more than a vastly overpaid (rightly paid) assistant.
Robotically fulfilling a list of demands, and to enable yourself and your team to come up with breakthrough solutions, to reach higher goals instead of simply focusing on delivering what we were told to do; your listening has to be active. It sounds like a cliché we heard so many times. It also sounds simple at first, but at the same time, it is confusing.
What does active listening actually involve, especially in the context of Product Management?
In everyday life, it’s extraordinary for a Product Manager to start working in a mature product environment, where everyone is concerned about the problems and expects solutions from the actual product team. Instead, your most important challenge is usually to navigate the ocean of solution and improvement ideas, predominantly based on assumptions. Assumptions that you will have to filter in a way that will lead to definite customer satisfaction and business success. Your first job is to construct the Product Filter (sieve), which will help you do this filtering.
The product and company visions define the frame of the Product Filter. To do this you must first listen to your CEO, your Head of Product, other product directors or if you are in an agency the clients product owner. Next you want to understand where the company and the product line truly are going. How do they envision the product solving their customer’s problems in the future – long and short term? How do they position the product on the market, and so on? Anything that doesn’t fit inside this frame, you can say goodbye to.
The next step is to sew the net, the actual filter (sieve). The material of the filter is both the user struggles and stakeholder needs.
When you listen to your user researchers and your users and customers (and especially if you are the one who asks the questions); you need to understand the problem behind every suggested solution. You need to focus not only on the smaller hassles they face using the products, but you need to be able to identify what may prevent them from using or buying the product in the first place.
The same applies to all stakeholders. Stakeholders come up with very nicely planned solutions, because they want to ensure that they have control over what they are responsible for. Legal stakeholders need to make sure that Product Managers don’t make mistakes that can get the company in trouble. Sales need to know that the product is something people will be willing to purchase. Engineering needs to be sure that the solution that is developed will be sustainable and flexible enough to stand the test of time. Manufacturing needs to make sure that the product is not something physically impossible for them to create or deliver.
Your goal as the Product Manager is to grasp where all these stakeholders are coming from and understand all their needs for the final product. It is also to understand and communicate what in the future may prevent them from achieving these goals that they have for the product. What are they afraid of the most? Listen and understand that before committing to their proposed solutions.
If you know what makes them afraid, your Product Filter will very efficiently filter out all the dirt and the non-relevant diamonds of the always infinite flow of needs, solutions and ideas. Even the ones that are your own in some cases, and that will help you find the ones that can actually work.
To make sure that the holes in your Product Filter are the right size, you need to weigh these needs.
Remember, your Product Filter will only be as good as your listening skills.
To get to the core, your listening has to be an intensive short-term activity and a less intensive, but steady one in the long term. It requires applying almost all elements of critical thinking in real-time, while you are also gathering the input.
Side-note: In rare, but painful cases; as a Product Manager or UX expert, you may meet with stakeholders who straight-out refuse to collaborate, or are masters of faking the conversation. As a result, you might have nothing to listen to, the raw materials are missing from the Product Filter. This is when being a Product Manager becomes an extreme sport. Navigating this situation is too big of a topic for this post, but I’ll write a separate post soon.
The following are step to help one become a better listener, and in turn become a better Product Manager:
To enable your brain for the demanding activity of intensive listening and stakeholder interviews, it’s best if you arrive to these meetings prepared. Have at least an approximate understanding of who you will talk to and what you want to achieve with the discussion.
Ideally, we would all have the listening skills of a therapist, but our goals are different. We listen so that we gain knowledge. The knowledge to find the best possible solution to help our customers, our stakeholders, and ultimately the company/client to reach their goals. Stakeholders are there to provide the input that makes it possible; we are there to do the digging to get there.
Also, always remind yourself to ask how you can help who you listen to, and mean it. You aim to flourish long-term relationships, and listening is not possible when your counterpart doesn’t talk to you.
While listening to stakeholders, actively make notes about every unusual or unclear point, and make sure that you follow up on them with questions during the session. Ask your initial questions from the list that you prepared in advance, but make sure to build a real connection by reactive communication with follow up questions during the interview.
Look out for everything the other person is rushing through or communicates in a very vague way. Most of the time, rushing through something means that the speaker is somehow embarrassed. It usually indicates that there is something that is not clear yet, even for the stakeholder; or there are some struggles they don’t feel comfortable revealing just yet. The goal is not to further embarrass your interview subject, as a matter of fact it is just the opposite. (Please read “Listen Like You Mean It” by Ximena Vengoech for more on this.) Addressing these uncomfortable points reactively during the interview, will help you act just in time to find solutions for them that will benefit all stakeholders.
Be aware of Interesting or surprising ways of language use. Noting these will later help you define a common language, an easy-to-understand vocabulary for both the clients and your team.
Patterns and recurrent themes are important and you should note and store them, and try to understand the reason behind them being repeated. Is it a recent realization, a fresh experience, and/or is that something that repeatedly holds the company back and makes it lose money? Follow up questions will help you understand why these patterns exist and will help determine if they indicate a solution opportunity.
Things that appear surprisingly easy or even boring. If they are so easy or boring, why do they keep coming up? Follow up to find out if they are really as easy and boring as they are stated.
No matter how confident you feel about your understanding at the moment of the conversation, as soon as you start working with your notes or recordings, you’ll realize that you have at least as many questions after the conversation as you had before it. For this reason, it is important to do one thing: restate your understanding in your own words after each and every topic. Ask to be corrected, to avoid the embarrassing situation of having to ask for too many follow-up occasions.
No matter how hard you try to get everything nailed down during the interviews and conversations, there will always be parts that require some post-processing.
Of course, it’s always useful to organize your thoughts and visualize the understood concepts and processes right after the conversation. But there is more to it. Our brain sometimes needs us to take a step back, wait and let the loads of information being unconsciously processed to reach the full potential of our understanding. Take your time to actively revisit your crucial conversations at least a few days after they happen.
One extreme example is when occasionally, you hear statements that shock you so much that the moment you hear them. You may not even know how to react; but your mind will circle back to them over and over as if haunted, even days or weeks after the conversation. Or you’ll feel tempted to just shut them down as straight out stupid or irrelevant (and they still haunt you). Make special attention to these occurrences since they may reveal some major misunderstandings. Let yourself contemplate on what may have been the context you missed. Slow down, let it slip for a few days. And don’t shy away from reaching out for further clarifications once you manage to frame your follow-up questions in a non-offensive way.
As a last piece of advice, please don’t start to do all the things mentioned in this article all at once. If you feel you need to improve in more than one area, focus on just one at a time until it becomes routine.
Remember, becoming a great Product Manager is a work in progress, and it takes time. Recognize the areas you want to strengthen and work on them in a way that doesn’t stress you out, but allows you to grow and move forward.
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