How to think like a product manager in times of uncertainty
Engage both sides of your brain to build organizational resilience
In the midst of rapid technological, economic, and consumer change (nevermind a global pandemic), many companies are rethinking the way they do business. You may be considering a redesign of your customer experience, transitioning to paperless workflows, or adapting your business model due to market shifts. The roles of product managers are increasingly critical to driving the success of large-scale digital migrations, from defining a project vision to implementing its rollout.
Standing up a product management discipline at your company may seem daunting, but adopting a product management mindset is a solid place to start. By understanding some core principles of product management, you can begin to adapt the way your entire organization functions. This will undoubtedly result in a much more significant transformation than just getting a new digital product out the door.
So, what is a product management mindset? Well-rounded product managers apply both left- and right- brained thinking to their work. While analytical problem-solving and decision making may seem like essential tasks, having an objective understanding of people’s needs and motivations is key to not only setting up a project for success, but seeing it through the highs and lows.
Use your right brain to stay open
Tapping into your intuition will allow you to create the space needed to think holistically and creatively, and embracing your empathetic side will encourage people to come along for the ride.
Understand WHY you are moving in a certain direction.
If you are delving into new territory, what do you aspire to achieve? Establish a vision that your stakeholders and employees can get behind. Make it ambitious but specific. For example, simply having access to data you didn’t have before doesn’t paint a clear picture of what that enables you to do moving forward. What do you hope to gain – new customers? operational efficiencies? reduced turnover? Engaging different departments to create smaller, distinct missions that support the overarching mandate will lead to incremental and collective impact.
Embrace diverse perspectives.
Product managers sit at the intersection of business, design, and technology, and are constantly weighing these various inputs. By the nature of an endeavor being new, no one person or group will have all the answers. Collect insights from an array of viewpoints – from external subject matter experts, new hires, and seasoned employees alike. This diversity will create not only a balanced approach, but also natural ambassadors in your employees, with a sense of shared ownership.
Drive clear and honest communication.
Nobody in your organization wants to be in the dark, or worse, misled. Product managers are typically the source of information, regularly communicating both good and bad news to all relevant parties. On a project involving the complete redesign and build of the employee systems for an insurance client, we soon discovered that each department had a different (and often conflicting) understanding of how their needs would be addressed by the new software. This inconsistency in internal messaging had created a sense of disappointment and mistrust. We collaborated with the client to establish a unifying, consistent voice, with clear communication channels to guide internal alignment. By speaking candidly, you’ll garner trust from employees and stakeholders, even if it means acknowledging when things have gone off the rails.
Use your left brain to stay disciplined
Applying a degree of rigor to your process ensures that ideas are turned into reality, and analytical thinking aligns a pursuit with its goals.
Adopt a culture of experimentation and iteration.
Implementing a new initiative rarely happens as smoothly as planned. But that’s OK. Product managers are constantly trying new things – creating a hypothesis, testing it out, evaluating the results, adapting, and evolving. The key here is reflecting on and applying your learnings – both the wins and the failures. Start experimenting at the risk level that feels right for your organization, by prototyping anything from a new team structure to an entirely new way of engaging with customers. Taking a chance on an idea can lead you in a positive new direction that might have previously never been explored.
While visionaries easily imagine a blue-sky future, for many people, an ambition of that nature can feel intimidating, especially when it comes to the execution. Product managers break down long-term visions into actionable roadmaps and project plans, focusing first on items that deliver a high level of value without an overwhelming amount of effort. Taking this approach not only feels more achievable, but shows tangible progress early on. A recent client had the aspiration of creating an industry-agnostic blockchain platform, but didn’t know where to begin. We helped them hone in on a specific market, value proposition, and feature set. Defining and validating a clear minimum viable product may require trimming down or pushing out wishlist items, but will create an immediate path forward.
Measure the success of your efforts.
Many product managers are known for being metrics-oriented, and their job performance may even be tied to specific product key performance indicators. But assessing outcomes isn’t limited to tracking user engagement in a mobile app. Regularly go back to your WHY, and see how well you are advancing in that direction. Monitor your experiments and see what you’ve learned and where there is traction, with metrics specific to your initiative. Have customer service calls been reduced due to the new self-service channel? Are employees reacting positively to the improved benefit package? Has the simplification of your offering driven an uptick in sales volume? Leverage these data points to guide your decision making and future moves.
How to begin
You may be wondering how to activate the shift towards a product management mindset at your company. First, find an area of opportunity that deserves some attention. Craft a simple vision for what an improvement in this space could offer.
Next, bring along internal talent who may not be product management experts, but are primed to adopt these principles. These participants could be employees who have learned from transitions at previous companies, analysts who are already looking at trends, strategic minds who are always looking for paths to the future, or changemakers accustomed to making improvements in their own domains.
Start small with your experimentation, focusing on something that can carry a good story if it succeeds, but not sink the ship if it fails. By proving out the application of these product management principles, you’ll likely gain wider buy-in to this mentality, enabling you to scale this approach across other initiatives in the organization.