Product capabilities are the main abilities you need to have in order to perform the primary product function: defining a value-added product and getting it delivered. These capabilities are:
- Product Thinking: the ability to discover and solve for a problem that delivers value
- Communication: the ability to clearly articulate reasoning, definition, and progress
- Indirect Leadership: the ability to lead through influence to deliver results
- Judgment: the ability to make sound decisions in challenging environments
- Execution: the ability to get results and generally make things happen
Product thinking is the ability to discover and solve for a problem that creates value.
Product thinking is the single most essential product capability that a product manager must acquire. It is comprised of two portions: (1) the ability to discover a valuable problem; and (2) the ability to create a solution that delivers value. The degree to which you need to be able to exercise product thinking depends on the problem space that you’re working in. Unestablished spaces like ambiguously defined startups or complex technology require a high degree of product thinking while an established product line or simple service require less in order to be just as effective.
The defining characteristic of product thinking is value, where value is the additional benefit that is received in excess of the cost. User value is simply value determined in relation to a user. Business value, likewise, is the value determined in relation to the business. It is these requirements of value that distinguishes product thinking from just coming up with a cool feature. Anyone can come up with an idea. We all have our opinions of what we like and what we don’t like. Product thinking is constrained by the need to deliver value, therefore requiring you to observe, analyze, and logically assess what will work for the user and the business.
Communication is the ability to clearly articulate reasoning, definition, and progress.
Communication for product managers is more than just the ability to speak and write well. Communication is the specific ability to clearly articulate reasoning, definition, and progress for a product for all audiences to deliver value. This is the foundation of the main assets that comprise the product manager’s toolkit and form the basis for how the product manager gets things done in an organization.
Communication assets are created to communicate the essential information to the reader, not just for the sake of documentation. By communicating correctly to the different audience groups, a product manager can achieve different objectives like getting resources from management, encouraging the user to use a new feature, or specifying to engineers what to build.
How each asset needs to look is completely dependent on the company and situation and varies stylistically depending on the product manager. A successful asset is able to communicate the essential information to the relevant audience group. The major types of communication are:
- Outward: communication to external parties like users, prospects, and the press.
- Upward: communication upward to product leadership and senior management.
- Inward: communication inward to the development team.
Indirect leadership is the ability to lead a team to deliver results through indirect rather than managerial reporting
Indirect leadership is the specific type of leadership that a product manager must display in a cross-functional capacity. It is a leadership style that uses indirect, rather than managerial reporting, to lead a non-reporting team to deliver results. In theory, a product manager’s role is well-established and there is mutual understanding between teams. In practice, people can disagree with you and choose not to operate under your prioritization. This happens more often than not. A traditional line manager has the organizational tools to keep a person in line under such a scenario, but a product manager does not. In order to lead effectively, the product manager must build strong relationships with each member of the team and learn how to influence them appropriately to operate within the product directive.
How much you need to display this leadership ability is dependent on the individuals on the development team and the organizational incentives of the company. In some companies or situations, this may be extremely difficult due to conflicting priorities, difficult personalities, and unsupportive organizational structures, and you must display an extremely high level of leadership. In others, there is less need because of a very product-focused team and supportive organizational structures.
Judgment is the ability to make sound decisions in challenging environments.
Product managers are responsible for the major decisions throughout the lifecycle of the product management process. The ability to make those decisions correctly is judgment. By making the correct decisions, mistakes are reduced and the chance of success is higher. Judgment is important for product managers to have because their decisions have high impact on both internal resources and external success. A bad decision can result in the mismanagement of resources and have a negative impact on users, resulting in poor performance. A good decision, on the other hand, will result in appropriate management of resources to deliver a positive impact on users, resulting in good performance.
Common types of decisions requiring judgment are:
- Prioritization: prioritization decisions are decisions where you must determine what is the best order of effort for any endeavor
- Trade-offs: trade-off decisions are decisions where you must determine the acceptable trade-off between different objectives
- Risk: risk decisions are decisions where you must determine what is the best course of action when some part of the process faces costly risk
Execution is the ability to get results and generally make things happen.
Execution is about getting things done. A product manager is responsible for the end results of the product management process. In order to get results, the product manager must be able to get things done in the company, no matter the difficulty or organizational complexity that the task may require. Product managers who can execute are extremely useful to teams and companies because they are able to make the hypothesized results real.
Execution is not the simple act of following a plan. A plan will always be a poor version of reality. Theoretical plans, no matter how well-defined with excellent product thinking and communication, are ultimately still plans. They set the groundwork for where to start. But when a plan gets put into action, it is subject to the messy reality of roadblocks, changes, mishaps, and uncertainty when working with large groups of people in cross-functional capacities and varying incentives. The ability to handle this dynamic process of building and delivering is execution.
In order to execute, a product manager must first have all the other product capabilities: product thinking, communication, and indirect leadership, and judgment. Execution requires the combined application of the other capabilities to be successful.
Startups tend to succeed by building a product that is so compelling and differentiated that it causes large number of customers to adopt it over an incumbent.
When interviewing product managers, it is important to keep in mind the role you are hiring her for (see the previous section