Communication: The key to successful product management
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What makes a good Product Manager? Whether you’re looking to expand the product team at your company or, like Rangle, sell the skillset to prospective clients, it’s critical to understand what separates those who can truly guide impactful products to market from those who merely fulfill the functions of the role.
As I reflected on this question, one competency, in particular, stood out – the art of communication. Good communication skills tend to be listed in every job application, and the ubiquity makes it easy to overlook the importance of this skill. Ultimately, you can be the most well-read, intelligent, customer- and business-results-oriented Product Manager, but if you can’t communicate well, then you’re lacking a pivotal competency.
The reason why I believe so strongly in good communication as a key skill for product people is that I had to learn its impact the hard way.
Casting my mind back to my early graduate program days post-university, I joined a well-established team at a large bank and was assigned ownership of a key process involving the review and approval of documentation for multiple products. I was given three months to complete the task and very little guidance on how to do it.
Fast forward three months: My manager asked me what progress I had made towards the goal, and the answer was very little. What were the reasons for this?
I had come to the conclusion when my manager first gave me the task that he expected me to understand it from the get-go, no questions asked. I also assumed that since he was the boss, the high volume of work he gave me was based on reasonable expectations.
I had failed to communicate that I needed help at the outset. Wanting to seem like a good employee and the smart new graduate I believed myself to be, I thought I could just figure it out without help. I was new to the team, fairly new to the organization and absolutely new to the process I was to own. I needed help and lots of details, but I didn’t ask for them. Even once I was up and running I further failed to communicate that the volume target was too high. Leaving that conversation to the three-month mark was absolutely the wrong thing to do.
This early-career lesson has stayed with me ever since. While it was painful at the time, it did the job of ensuring that I would focus on communicating well for the rest of my career. I hope it also proves that strength in communication is a skill which can be developed. We have the tendency to think about it as a trait that’s simply inherent to certain individuals but not to others. However, like leadership, good communicators are not born, they are made.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why communication is so key for product managers, and ways that you can develop good communication skills, plus coach others to develop better communication practices.
Communication for product managers
To be an effective product manager is to be an effective leader. In the earliest days of a new product build or new client engagement, you have to ask the right questions to understand the opportunity — and that includes drawing people out to understand their business goals (and even personal goals) for the product, as well as gaining an understanding of the impact the product will make on your potential target market.
A product manager also has to effectively communicate the product vision to get buy-in. This looks different for every level of the business, as what you say to inspire an executive-level stakeholder is likely to be very different from what you say when sharing the vision and roadmap to the team who will be building the product. As you lead your product team through the build, you have to create clarity on how the work is divided down into single user stories or tasks from an overall vision. When things are going well, you have to celebrate the success in a way that’s motivating for the team, including communicating what that means for your product line. When things are off-track, you need to know how and where to apply pressure to move ahead.
To your stakeholders, you have to report on progress towards your goals, especially when things are not going as planned. Most importantly, you need to be able to say ‘no’ to these powerful people for the good of the product. When stakeholders are pushing for invalidated changes to a product or process which will detract from the product’s core goals, you have to be the strong voice in favor of the vision and the customer, which takes strength and an ability to communicate your reasoning in a way that others can understand.
Communication is a two-way street
As important as outward communication is the art of listening. Especially when there are disagreements, such as when you are dealing with stakeholders who are acting against the stated goals of the product, it’s easy to talk more than you listen. But like my mother always told me, we are blessed with one mouth and two ears for a reason. To arrive at the best outcomes and the best results, you have to be willing to collaborate and hear what people at all levels of the organization are saying.
Product managers in particular should always be listening to:
- Internal and external customers, and your target markets
- Experts in your market and what the competition is doing
- Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) within your organization in Technology, Delivery, Quality, and Design
- Experienced team members who have launched products in the company before
- Your current team to help them remain focused on the right outcomes, and so you can remove any blockers they encounter
- Your leadership team, so you always know their priorities and what they think good looks like
What does good outward communication look like?
Whether I’m interviewing a new product manager to join the Rangle team or trying to coach effective communication while on a client account, I have some guidelines which I use to assess the quality of communication.
- Good communication is clear
There should be little room for confusion or ambiguity if your communication is clear. When confusion arises, ask clarifying questions and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. It’s better to bore your audience than puzzle them. It’s also important to note that there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that you don’t know the answer, or need time to establish a response to a question. As long as you do follow up and communicate a response in a timely way, you’re giving your colleagues what they need to do their jobs effectively.
- Good communication is succinct
It’s good to remember that work is busy (and at times, chaotic) with many different pressures on your team members. To mitigate this, it helps when your communication is succinct and to the point. Don’t invite your team to an hour-long meeting if you can tell them what they need to know to shift priorities in 30 minutes, and don’t book a half-hour meeting when an email will do. A short presentation is preferable to providing detail which is of little direct relevance to the audience you are engaging with. Know your audience, and know what’s most important to them.
- Good communication is open and two-way
A product manager will frequently be expected to come up with a product vision, roadmap, or strategy on their own, but to build and evolve these effectively the process should involve open two-way communication. Once key stakeholders have been identified, their views and opinions should be understood and included. You need to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their views. Crucially, you will need to ensure that people who are not naturally inclined to offer up their views are given the space they need to do so. The loudest voices do not necessarily make the best products.
- Good communication always has the recipient in mind
Knowing your product’s audience is a given for a product manager. But who is your audience? When you are pitching for funding for your product roadmap, for example, you’ll need to clearly define what the investment will return to the business in value. When you’re turning that pitch into a set of feature requirements with a product team, you have to share the business goals and motivate them by explaining what’s in it for them. How you say what you have to say should depend on who you’re saying it to.
A formula for good communication
If you’re stumped on how to deliver your message, a good starting point is to ensure you cover the following:
- What is the topic or subject
- Why do we want to tackle it?
- What are the outcomes we seek?
- Who do we need to make it a success?
- When will it be worked on?
- How do we intend to achieve the outcomes we’re looking for?
Self-improvement guru Paul J. Meyer says that “Communication — the human connection — is the key to personal and career success”. I believe there is great truth in this statement, and that much of what I have outlined above is equally applicable to both personal and professional life.
As product managers, we build products in order to connect with others. We dream of making a product that people find truly useful — one that saves them time, makes a difficult task easy or brings delight into their lives. But your product can’t always speak for you. The best products need a strong advocate behind them in order to be built, which is why a good product manager is an effective communicator. They must speak for themselves, their team, and the customers of their product in an ever-increasing complex and competitive world.