May 5, 2016

The need for product conversations

A few days back, I was having an interesting conversation with a product manager of an early-stage startup. He's been building a B2B product from scratch and was looking for someone who can listen to his thought process of how he's product-izing the whole concept, the workflow and the UX. We spent around an hour on this exercise where he was talking the most while I was listening intently and was asking a few questions. The questions weren't really earth-shattering but more fundamental and basic. At the end of the hour, he felt energized and was able to identify a few areas that require immediate attention in his product. For me, it was a good learning experience and also gave me an opportunity to exercise my "product-thinking" muscle, if I may say so :-)

Product management is a skill that is best learnt through experience and real-life problem statements. No courses or certifications can match upto the learning that you'd get from an actual problem that involves product-solve - a term that is frequently used at my current workplace :-)

There are multiple reasons why I think such product conversations should happen more frequently, especially in India where product management skill is in high demand.

A product conversation in this context happens between two product owners / product managers. Let's say, A wants to sound-board his thought process and B is ready to listen. Such informal conversations without any associated tangible reward or recognition are extremely helpful, enriching and mutually beneficial to both the parties. Let me list down some of the benefits that I can foresee:

From A's point of view,
1) A non-stakeholder has no bias
Keeping aside the confidentiality, non-compete clause and other legal implications, a non-stakeholder can give honest, unbiased inputs and can ask the right questions - sometimes very basic and common sense, which may not be that apparent to us. Our peers, other internal stakeholders (including you) and customers know a little too much about the market, the problem to be solved and the available solutions. Call it the "curse-of-knowledge". A non-stakeholder brings a new perspective, which may not have come into picture while you are product-izing the solution. He/she also provides non-critical and constructive feedback.

2) Helps to take a step back
As a PM, you are heads down focused, building the product, planning the release, talking to customers and working on other umpteen tasks that occupy your mind (and time). You don't have the luxury of taking a step back and think through what made you take a specific direction. An hour-long conversation with a trusted product person helps you to explain why and how you are envisioning a new product or a new feature. Articulating your thought process in clear words helps you unravel a different angle that you might have missed.

3) Identification of cross-functional skill needs
During the conversation with my friend, we talked about user onboarding and how the product can help the user achieve quick wins. As I have worked earlier on projects in these areas, I helped my friend identify a few action items around them. They may or may not be within the scope of his work but the conversation helped him understand the importance of these areas. The product person B can bring his experience to the table on - say, analytics, product marketing, UX best practices etc, which A may not have had prior experience.

From B's point of view,
1) Develops product thinking
Product thinking skill is like a muscle that has to be exercised. It cannot be achieved through courses, mock problems or in one-off interviews. Real world experience cannot match up to these alternatives. Such conversations helps you envision the challenges typically faced by a product manager. They also help you ask the right questions and structure your thought flow.

2) Gives you exposure to multiple domains
T-shaped skill development is a concept I subscribe to. Through such deep conversations, you get exposure to various domains on which you may or may not be aware of the intricacies/complexities.  You might also get curious about certain aspects of a specific domain that emerged during these conversations, which you might look up/research/explore later.

3) Provides opportunities for active listening
As product managers, we are "expected" to talk a lot. But I often emphasize on the importance of active listening. I had earlier written in detail about this topic. In today's world of endless distractions and constant interruptions, this skill is becoming obsolete. Try to lend your ears with an open mind and listen to someone deeply without getting distracted. It opens up a world of new opportunities and ideas.

Hope I have convinced you enough on the need for product conversations. Let's connect, reach out in an informal manner and make this happen.

Originally published in LinkedIn Pulse -

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