Guest Post by: Alexander Berry (Mentee, Session 11, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Brad Popiolek]
Many product managers, including myself, often reflect and think hard around the areas which they need to invest in to progress in their career; is it A/B testing, data analysis, go to market skills? I think the most important skill that a product manager needs to master is the foundational skill of communication, it sounds simple but if you can master this skill then everything else seems to fall into place. In my opinion, mastery of communication is the most important skill in becoming a highly effective product manager. I’m going to talk about three areas where I have learned the importance of this and how it has helped me over the course of being a mentee in this program, and how it had a big impact on making progress on my personal OKR of being a more well-rounded product manager. These three areas are within my development team, with other stakeholders within the business and thirdly, and within the market.
This year I started my first ‘real’ product manager role where I was sole the product manager and owner for two teams. This felt like a big step up for me but I believed I had the skills from previous roles that were transferable, in particular, managing different stakeholders and possessing a commercial awareness. However, one thing which needed refining with all this was the ability to communicate effectively to anyone at any time and therefore manage expectations better, leading your team to success and most importantly allowing your team to strive and deliver value. Communication underpinned and still does underpin my day to day to work, whether this is nonverbal communication in the morning to uplift your team, a quick rational response over slack to make informed decisions, or presenting your product roadmap to a room of customers.
Development Team: Setting the rules and boundaries of communication
One of the first areas my mentor Brad and I discussed was how to get the most out of your development team. As my team was fairly junior and recently created, an ample opportunity presented itself to mold the team and find a process that worked best. Below I’ll discuss a few different things which I have learned, applied and reaped success from. All of which center around the mastery of communication.
As it was a new team with many people who were unclear of what to expect within their role and what to expect of others I.e.how to engage with them and how they work, it was important to agree on these things and communicate it amongst ourselves. Implementing this set the boundaries and principles for a successful team. For example, I have shared my understanding of what my role is within the team, how I work and what they can expect from me, such as communicating the voice of the customer and representing the companies best interests. This clearly stated document communicates to the team how they should engage with me and is always visible and accessible for any new team members joining. I believe this allows for more effective communication as each person knows what to expect from each other. This ultimately creates a self-organised team and empowers everyone on the team to make decisions and solve problems.
Another area that I needed guidance in was ensuring that the team delivered upon their potential and I could create a more predictable cadence of delivering using value. As the company tracks and monitors such things it was important for me to be confident that what I communicated we would deliver in that quarter, did get delivered that quarter. Brad and I discussed many things such as how to use team members’ individual motivations to help strive them to be their best. This has helped the team push themselves further to deliver something as the reward was personal and more fitting to them.
When it comes to delivering a particular feature or user story I found this to be very unpredictable and often saw the original estimation increasing or the scope ‘creeping’, this was an area which I discussed with Brad and the things which I have changed have helped massively over the last few months. This boiled down to more regular and clear communication regarding what should be delivered and ensuring every detail is clearly communicated. For example, I used to have one refinement session a week with my tech leads to go through the acceptance criteria for the stories and then a 2-hour planning session with the team each sprint to go through each story in a bit more detail and answer any questions. This felt like enough, but as just mentioned this resulted in scope creep and stories not being delivered against their original estimate. After discussing with Brad why this could be some problems were unearthed. Firstly, the stories were too big and therefore it was hard to deliver as the team couldn’t give a representative estimate. I now always try and split the stories into the smallest possible piece of deliverable value. This result? More focus, a clearer picture of what should be delivered and better predictability of when it will be delivered for other stakeholders. Additionally, as the teams clearly know the boundaries of communication, they are empowered to contribute more in these sessions and offer alternative and often superior solutions that address the same customer need.
Another key thing that I have changed is increasing the level of communication with the developers who are working on the story. Instead of just writing the acceptance criteria and ‘throwing the story over the wall’ I make more of an effort to check in with the team daily to go over their assumptions or clarify any outstanding points. This ensures that small deviations in the road don’t result in complete U-turns later down the line. Now a user story is more a placeholder for a frequently revisit conversion, instead of a list of requirements.
Using OKRs as a form of communication
Just before joining this program I had started to look at implementing OKRs with my fellow product managers. Receiving support and advice on how to manage these better throughout the program has been beneficial. I know how to use these frameworks for focussed communication to enable a better working relationship with my seniors. For example, in my 1-1s with my manager, we now go through each OKR and I provide an update. If there are any blockers my manager tries to get this unblocked. This allows the highest priorities to be discussed and progressed freely. Furthermore, it also allows me to protect my team better by clearly communicating with the rest of the business that this is what we have committed too and therefore other requests won’t normally be considered.
Being able to communicate with the market is also another essential skill for any product manager. Expectations in how you are going to proceed and what you are going to deliver is important if the business is going to sign a long term contract with you.
On one of the mentor live streams, the importance of a strong strategy and vision was discussed. A product vision and strategy is the way you communicate with the market, showing what’s important to you as a company and what you can expect to see from them. When I started in my role I felt that there wasn’t much of either. I have managed this in a few ways. Firstly, in all my customer engagements I clearly outline what’s important for the company, how we are going to get there and what they can expect to see. Secondly, I have worked internally with designers to create a vision storyboard that maps out a day of our customer life using our product in a few year’s time. This has served as the perfect mechanism to sense check the direction we are going and to agree on the priorities of the market. This puts feature requests into a new context, I have established a strong alignment with the market and customers. Simple feature requests no longer cut it.
Whilst being on this program I have really appreciated being able to receive support and guidance of accomplished product leaders. My discussions with Brad have highlighted the importance of mastering communication. I will continue to develop this skill throughout my time as a product manager, and one day hopefully master
And to finish…something which sums things up quite nicely.
Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life. – Brian Tracy
About Alexander Berry
Alexander Berry is a product manager based in London who works for LexisNexis, a world leader in legal and tax research products. He has a business management degree from Liverpool University which led him into digital marketing focussed roles for brands such as Telefónica O2. From there, Alex found a passion for product management and honed his craft on a two-year graduate scheme, giving him the opportunity to work on many products across different industries. For the last year Alex has been leading two development teams to deliver the next generation of tax research products. Whilst on the mentor programme Alex has been able to develop in key areas to become a more well-rounded product manager.
More About The Product Mentor
The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…
Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.
Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…
- Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
- Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
- Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
- Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community
Check out the Mentors & Enjoy!
The Product Guy