Disha Patel is Product Manager at Intuit. She is originally from India and has an impressive educational background with a B.S in Electrical Engineering and Economics from Purdue University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and an M.B.A from Yale.
Product Management (PM), in my experience, at its crux is deciding what to build, based on a strong “why”, and then building it.
PM like anything else is a craft (which can be broken done into learnable components – as you will see below), it is not magic. It can be most certainly be taught, learned and mastered by just having more runs at it. It is disheartening to see the resistance and in some cases just hubris among the PM gatekeepers on giving opportunities to those coming from other functions – be it strategy, engineering, design, project management or others.
Based on my experience, switching from strategy consulting (BCG and Intuit) to product management, I want to share some questions and attitudes I faced that left me incredulous (so the readers know they are not alone) and give tips (general, that hopefully the reader can make specific based on their situation) on how readers can frame their experiences or seek out new ones if they are looking to transition to PM.
When starting out in PM (generally speaking, but as we saw at the Women in Product panel – depending on the industry, type of products and stage of product lifecycle, there will be nuances) there are essentially six elements of the craft that are critical to have (to some degree) and demonstrate:
1.Customer Empathy – Before starting in PM, I’d heard a lot of about being “customer-obsessed” but one must be cautious to build empathy in a disciplined, rigorous manner (e.g. take only ‘voice of the customer’ (VOC) as a way to guide what you will build next, this is how PMs fall into incrementalism). I’ve learned that what customers say and what they do are very different things. It is critical to use multiple inputs (VOC, data, observations in customer’s context, data from customers are interacting with competitor products and more) to develop empathy. There’s a technique called the “empathy mapping” that I’ve found particularly helpful – which forces the discipline of understanding what customers say, think, feel and do (as much possible) often to see the contradictions so we can make the right calls early on and are not blind-sighted later.
Tip: Whatever field, role you are in today – 1) define your customers (internal or external) 2) develop empathy in a disciplined way to identify their top pain(s) 3) make changes based on what you learn and 4) quantify impact and repeat. This is to essentially build a habit for being customer obsessed and can be done in engineering, marketing or even an operations project
2. Peripheral vision, imagination and boldness – Once you’ve identified top customer problem(s), there could be many different ways of solving it. Develop peripheral vision – look to other products and customer experiences in different contexts (e.g. if you’re in the software space, perhaps look to Disney, Lego or even some of the consumer goods products) to expand your imagination. Keep challenging yourself and your team to think of more ideas, bolder ideas
Tip: Read product blogs, technology news, listen to related (or not!) podcasts regularly to keep up to date on latest innovations and enable yourself to connect the dots
3. Clear, structured thinking and decision-making under uncertainty – Even if you have done above-mentioned thoroughly, you will never know until much later (post launch) if you’ve made the right product decisions. The key to decision-making in this kind of uncertainty is to:
- Deeply think through and synthesize what you have learned from customers, discovered from market research in structured manner
- Craft guardrails or principles based on your synthesis to guide the team in coming up with early solutions.
- Identify what assumptions (e.g. about how customers will engage with the solution, adoption etc.) you are making in your early solutions
Tip: Practice casing (I know many stoop doing this post university but shaking off cobwebs here will really help you get into a habit of being structured), practice organizing large amount of input into storylines and repeatedly ask yourself “so what” (i.e., given X information what will you do differently?)
4. Experimentation and learning – After customer empathy, this is arguably the most critical piece of the PM craft. As stated above, in PM, you won’t know till later if you’ve made the right bets – a powerful way of bringing in more certainty around whether you are making the right bets or not is rapid experimentation and learning. The key here to have clarity on what you want to learn before designing or running the experiment. Have clarity on: what are your learning objectives, what are the metrics that you are hoping to see move (and how) – essentially having a hypothesis, what will you do as the learning comes in. Example: If you are designing a webpage – what are you specifically testing during testing? Is it content or placement of certain elements or something else? How will know whether what you are testing is working with customers or not?
Tip: When you think of new ideas for projects or products, think through how can you experiment low fidelity versions of it (this can be anything – not just SaaS products, it could be a physical object, a new process), think ahead of time – what should your metrics be and what does success look like and be guided by this learning plan.
5. Execution (can you get stuff done?) – This is one that strategy consultants get questioned about and it leaves me incredulous every time. As strategy consultants we’ve had to deliver deeply thought-through, structured output in a high-pressure, deadline driven environment. Consultants also, especially now, work on transformation projects where they lead (without no authority) large client teams to deliver initiatives worth millions. Yes, we can deliver on whatever it is we are tasked with – we’ve done it in far more stressful situations.
Essentially what this means in PM is having a constant pulse on what is blocking your team and make it your business to unblock (either by driving clarity on an issue or by aligning different members in the org or by getting answers/ inspiration / outcomes from other teams). For me execution was also about setting and managing expectations – managing sideways (peers and other teams) and upwards (leadership) on what is possible and by when. And importantly, deciding what is possible and by when only when your team is aligned and you’ve accounted for (as much possible) long pole items.
Tip: Lead a cross-functional project end to end. Lead not just on paper but really reflect along the way on 1) what you are doing, what you could do differently to take delivery to the next level 2) what are you learning and how would you translate that to PM?
6. Team morale championship – Last but my no means least, this is a critical element of making sure that you are able to do all of the above mentioned effectively. If you have a team in which each member:
- Knows what they should be working on and why (i.e., product features that will actually solve real customer pain and will as a result move the needle on business metrics)
- Knows that you care about each of them and their development
- Feels respected and senses an inclusive atmosphere
You can deliver on all other things in spades.
Tip: Your team doesn’t have to be limited to the direct one you are part of, does not matter if you have any direct reports (most PMs don’t) – expand your idea of a team to everyone in the organization (and outside) who can help you achieve a goal (e.g. completing a large initiative, launching a new product or process) and make it your business to bring them along your journey as a true partner. Reflect on what skills you drew upon to bring them along.
Even though it’s early days for me, I’m really enjoying delivering on and learning the PM craft. It’s challenging, wide-ranging and purposeful. To reiterate for those of you who are interested in transitioning to PM – don’t be dissuaded by resistance or lack of encouragement. Instead focus on gaining and (importantly) framing experiences in the right way to chip away at the resistance.