If you’re new to a product management job then it can often be very hard to get access to all the information you need. But I’ve found that by building relationships, setting the future vision, and having faith in your capabilities as a product manager you can carve out a place for yourself.
One of the critical things you learn in a large corporation is that information is king. Without information about how things work, the centers of power, who wields power, how information is transmitted, you’re at a loss.
When I first started as product lead at a bank, information used to fly right past me. We were a new team and we didn’t know what product management should encompass at the bank. Designers wanted to drive requirements and scope, freshly-minted MBA associates wanted to “help out” by driving user research and marketing, business analysts wanted to solve all edge cases, client experience managers felt they had to act in the best interests of clients, and the analytics team created mundane business reports for the executive team.
As you might imagine, there was a lot of cross talk. Designers reached out to domain experts from other teams to drive requirements without consulting the product team. User research took place without collaboration with the product manager on the objectives of the research, client segments being interviewed, and so on. Visual designers wanted to put all kinds of concepts into the virgin product without having a thorough understanding of the customer’s immediate needs.
I felt frustrated, lost, angry, fake, and incompetent. Information didn’t come to me, didn’t originate from me, didn’t flow through me, but went around in swirly lines before reaching me at some stage.
Around month eight, I finally started to crack, but in a good way. I knew I had to do something different. If you’ve ever had a similar experience in a big corporate setting, what I’ve learned should help you to navigate this world of crippling information see-saw.
Get Your Vision, Problem Definition and Job-to-be-done Right
The primary job of a product leader is to get the WHAT and the WHY right. Once you set the vision for your team (the “why” part of the equation), the customer’s job-to-be-done, everything else should ideally fall into place.
I took a long time to understand, and then evangelize, the vision for our team. This was probably because we were trying to figure out where our product stood in the grander scheme of things, and trying to find product/market fit. However once I agreed the product vision with my manager (over the course of months and numerous meetings), our entire team was in a better place. It meant we could reference our vision, the pain points of our customers, and our end goal, in an articulate manner, over and over again. And it meant the team could start trusting me.
Let Everyone do What They’re Best at
As product lead you may think you know best, but the different functions in the organization exist for a reason. Even if you can write content, the content manager has more tricks up their sleeve. Even if you think you can conduct user testing interviews, the user research manager has a better way of organizing and asking questions objectively. Even if you think you know the solution architecture, the tech team knows the ins and outs, the background, and the future state of their tech blueprint better than you ever could.
So let others do the jobs they’re meant to do, hired to do, and that they’re good at. Collaborate with these teams, build relationships, make sure everyone is working towards the common objective, and help wherever you can.
Concentrate on Learning From Others
As a complete newbie in the banking and finance world, I struggled to learn about the new domain, the new culture and new way of working — I was like a tiger whale (yes that’s my spirit animal) out of water.
After a lot of false starts and friction, I realized I just needed to slow down. I needed to concentrate on learning what others had to offer, and learn about the industry ins and outs, the basics of money movement, retail banking, financial management, our clients, financial advisors, and the industry at large. I especially needed to learn how others conduct themselves in a banking environment, how they led and directed conversations, how they practised patience, and built relationships across the cross-functional teams.
Whatever industry you work in, such an approach puts you in good stead over the long term.
Listen More and ask Questions
So just listening and learning in meetings, from domain experts, from more experienced members of the team is critical to learning. Being reflective for the majority of the conversations and offering up your perspective after you’ve listened to everyone in the room is a sign of an exceptional leader.
I started working to absorb things around me and asking lots of questions to get to the bottom of the things we were trying to solve. Listening and asking questions enabled me to have an informed view of the product before offering my feedback or opinions. And it helped my colleagues to understand and appreciate my areas of expertise.
Chat With all Functions in the Team (Especially Those With the Loudest Voices)
Inviting someone on your team for a coffee is a good way to break the ice and get to them. Getting to know the key people in your team well, especially the ones with the loudest voices or those in authority, can go a long way. It means you’re able to take them into your confidence, and share information with them so that they feel comfortable sharing information with you. A chat over coffee should be the beginning of a good professional relationship.
Help out in the Other Functions
If you’re keen to know what’s happening in other parts of your product and others are not ready to trust you, then offer to help out. Since there was a distinction in my team between product and user research/testing, I asked the research lead if I could help out with a few interviews and asked the analytics team if I could play around with Google Analytics and put in some optimizations. No one will say no. In the worst case, they will reluctantly agree. I would only caution that you take care to avoid getting swamped by the work you take to “help”.
Hold a Product Management Information Session or Workshop
If you’re a product manager, then show off your skills — especially communication and leadership. Why not hold a brown bag session and talk about the art of product management? Educate your colleagues on your past experiences, how you got into product management, how different companies require different kinds of product managers, the challenges you face, and so on. You can even invite your product friends from other companies to talk about their career and their product experiences.
Such an information session or workshop is bound to raise interest among your colleagues and will allow them to view work your perspective.
Finally, have a little patience. It will work out if you’re good at your job, and keen enough to keep trying. It all gets better with time. Until then, don’t sweat the small stuff!