Work as a whole has changed during the last 12–18 months. The pandemic has created a need to work from home where possible. We all had to cope with the state the world was and still is in while learning how to work effectively in a remote setting. As product managers, we need to lead our teams, and the combination has required a shift in how we do things to come out on top. Here are the 6 most important lessons I learned in 2021.
- Leadership requires even more intentional communication.
- Strategic skills will take you from good to great.
- You need a coaching mindset.
- Bake diversity, equity and inclusion into your day-to-day practice.
- We all feel like imposters sometimes.
- Strategy is really hard, and a lack of it will create more trickle-down problems.
- Product-led growth is cool as long as we stay collaborative.
I am a great proponent of strategic skills for product managers. Strategic skills are the ones that we need to achieve a long-term or overall aim. Formerly known as soft skills, good communication, facilitation, presenting well or being a good listener are your means to achieve your overall goals. These skills will not only advance you as a leader within your team, but they are also beneficial when working remotely.
On the other hand, we have tactical skills meant to be smaller-scale actions serving a larger purpose, carried out with only a limited or immediate end in view.
More product people have been vocal about strategic skills, also referred to as human skills, like Kate Leto, who wrote a great book on the subject: Hiring Product Managers: Using Product EQ to go beyond culture and skills. I have also talked about this topic a lot, written a blog post for the Roadmaps Conference 2021 and did a guest article for the Process & Leadership chapter in Daniel Thufault’s eBook From Vision to Version.
I highly recommend training your coaching skills if you’re a product leader. These books were my go-to this year:
📗 Marty Cagan’s Empowered
📘 Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever
📙 Julie Zhuo’s Making of a Manager The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You
I am so happy to see that discovery work has become way more mainstream, even in Europe. No doubt, Teresa Torres’ book Continuous Discovery Habits has had a significant impact. All the product people post about it. At the same time, it’s still more talk than action in most companies. Baby steps, we’re taking baby steps!
I can highly recommend Tim Herbig’s course on Adaptable Product Discovery if you want to get more into it.
Looking at job titles in Germany and Europe in general, I can’t help but feel product management is not entirely understood. Most job specs are about execution, and the title is mostly Product Owner. If they are about strategy and “the business,” they might be called Product Managers, but they won’t work on anything delivery-related; that’s what the POs are for, right? It misses the whole point of good product management, which is really hard, so they might not have seen it or don’t actually want it. It’s a bit of a mess, and I could write a whole article about it.
I’ve seen more product people advocating for the importance of strategic skills and more inclusive product management.
One of my favourite talks was by Teresa Torres:
Her talk inspired me so much that I created one based on how product professionals can incorporate justice, equity, diversity and inclusion into their day-to-day.
Our goal as product managers is to build products that our customers love. Chances are, your customer base is diverse. We should be aware of the impact our products can have. Hiring a diverse team is a great long-term strategy. We can also start doing things straight away; I will publish more about that soon.
Imposter Syndrome “phenomenon” has been an enormous topic — self-doubt is ok to an extent — but I think it’s so prevalent because PMs often don’t have a clearly defined role or path with transparent expectations. The responsibilities and tasks are so vast that we need to be generalists no matter which area we come from, and we always work with experts from all those areas.
I try to embrace that little voice when it helps me stay on my feet and be curious and continuously improve. I also remind myself regularly that it shouldn’t get too loud and keep me from pursuing new opportunities and facing challenges. It’s normal to feel this way sometimes.
Ok, this one is not new, but I’ve had some more realizations.
For me, strategy always meant guard rails. Strategy creates those for my team and me, and it helps us move faster. If we don’t feel safe, we become more risk-averse, slower and less innovative. Which is the opposite of what you’d want from your product teams, I hope.
Creating a strategy is no one-time activity, and it’s not as easy as filling out a canvas, but it is very worthwhile.
On top of that, prioritization is a topic PMs struggle with — mostly, it’s not a lack of skills. It’s a lack of strategy on a higher level. You cannot prioritize the things that will move you in a particular direction consistently if there is no direction.
Gibson Biddle’s 12-part series How to Define Your Product Strategy here on Medium is a fantastic resource to learn more about strategy.
I don’t know about you, but I am almost annoyed when I hear “product-led” these days. I like what it stood for when people started using it, but it has become something less favourable. The other options are usually something like sales-led and marketing-led. That makes it sound like it’s either/or. Sales against marketing against product — fight to the death; there can only be one champion.
In reality, we all need each other and should collaborate rather than one-up each other. Bring your empathy to the table and listen to your counterparts. By no means should you just build what they request, but you need to make sure you’re all aligned, and there is transparency about what’s next.
The other extreme is seeing product development as a service to request stuff from. I’ve seen this in the past, and I wish I had a solution other than leaving a place. If the culture and org setup does not support an empowered product development team or department, there’s usually not much an individual contributor can do.
To get an idea of what will be up in Europe, we can look to North America and usually check what was happening the past 1–2 years there (sometimes more).
Product-led growth is likely here to stay. I am starting to see that more and more here in Europe. I am not yet convinced that product management and product-led growth are well understood, especially by large corporations. Those are often still working on becoming agile. This means there’s a lot of digital transformation work happening, with PMs being drivers, and I think that will continue, and the “contents” of these transformations will slowly move from agile to product thinking. CPOs are starting to be a thing in startups. In a few years, larger organizations might actually follow suit. Fingers crossed.
In general, I feel more and more people are driven by purpose. I believe this is a significant factor in the high number of people leaving jobs.
What was your most significant learning in 2021? What are you expecting to see in 2022?