/ Product Management

Essential Skills Every Product Manager Should Have

Product management is an increasingly popular field in the technology industry. Each year, more people are becoming interested in, and trying to break into the field of product management.  

However, there are infinite paths to becoming a PM. Some PMs come from business schools, some are former QA, some come from an engineering background, and others just have deep domain expertise.

The different types of PM can vary as well. Some PMs are business-focused, some primarily work on product growth, some are highly technical, and so on.

Regardless of your background or the type of PM you want to become, here are some essential skills every prospective PM should master.

Communication

Let’s start with communication. Communication is one of the most important skills a PM can master because of where product management typically sits within a company. Product management is usually at the intersection of business, design, and engineering, but can also interact with many other stakeholders as well (QA, user research, DevOps, data science, customer success, technical support… the list goes on).

You will be communicating with different functional groups with different roles and communication styles. Two tips that will help you master communication are:

  1. Be concise
  2. Master visual communication

If you get your main points across in as few words as possible, you’ll spend less time trying to explain minor details and more time on important product work. A tip to help with this skill is to try and keep all messages at just a few sentences when describing a problem or task.

If you find yourself rambling, you may want to dial back the scope or leave out the technical bits. If people have follow-up questions, give them a way to reach out to you, but don’t assume that everyone needs to read a novel to understand your point. Keep it short and sweet!

Secondly, if you can master visual communication, you will amplify your ability to communicate. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is equally important in product management. Use screenshots, video recordings, or even napkin sketches to help people get your idea. No need to have an art degree – just convey your main thoughts!

Get great at communication to properly convey thoughts and ideas with everyone around you.

User Research

Understanding how to conduct strong user research is such an insanely important skill to have as a PM. You want to be able to empathize with your user to understand their pain points, dig into their behavior, and try to uncover how they could be successful by using your product. Empathy will also help you understand when your point of view might be flawed or incomplete, giving you more insight overall.

To get better at this, try asking your friends and family about any topic they’re passionate about or recent news (you probably already do this in conversation or whenever you catch up, asking things like “What’s up with you?”). Take everything you’ve heard and jot down a list of the top 3 most important points. The point of this exercise is to practice your active listening skills. Keep an ear out for new terms, things they emphasize, and any interesting nuggets. You might even uncover something new that even they didn’t realize!

Practice user research to understand your user’s behavior and draw insights for your product!

Leadership

Becoming a great PM doesn’t stop at getting to know your users. Demonstrating great leadership skills by understanding your colleagues can be a powerful force-multiplier in the world of product management. Understand everyone’s roles and responsibilities so that you can help them achieve their goals. They will be more inclined to return the favor by helping you with your success as well!

For example, if engineers are working day and night to launch that new feature you proposed, don’t expect them to work through the weekend fixing low priority issues.

Use strong leadership to your advantage to optimize both your product and your product relationships.

Documentation & PRDs

One of the main responsibilities of a PM is to document all the requirements for the product.

These requirements typically come directly from the users via some sort of user research (market research, interviews, surveys, etc.). Here, having polished communication and user research skills will make your requirements gathering much better.

Most PMs are familiar with a requirements-gathering document called a PRD (Product Requirements Document). The PRD is the gospel of a product or feature. It helps anyone working on the product (present or future) understand:

  • What you’re trying to solve
  • Why this problem is important (to you or the users)
  • What you hope to achieve by solving the problem
  • How you might solve the problem
  • When you’ll solve parts of the problem
  • How you’ll measure success.

If you’ve never seen a PRD, take a look at this article by Jackie Bavaro on how to write your own. From there, practice on more features and see how well the PRD works for you. Feel free to tweak your own PRD standards to fit your team’s needs!

Document your requirements so that everyone understands how you reached your product decisions.

Resource Management/Prioritization

As a PM, it can be easy to overwhelm yourself with the A-Z of an entire product. You may want to try and ‘boil the ocean’ when you first start working on a product – don’t.

Being a great PM means understanding how to manage your resources properly. This includes your time & expertise, engineering’s time & expertise, design’s time & expertise, etc.

Also, realize that each of your resources should be treated differently. Do you want your engineering team designing specs when they’re great at writing code? Probably not.

In order to properly manage your resources, practice great prioritization skills. Prioritize not only your short-term tasks and work (sprints), but also on where to focus the future of your product (roadmaps).

If you work in sprints, remember that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Not everything that needs to be done holds the same level of importance. Identify major issues then work your way down to smaller, less important ones. Another tip is to keep some flexibility in your sprints for surprise issues. If you need to move some stuff to another sprint and re-prioritize, that’s perfectly okay.

For feature-planning and road mapping, using a simple methodology can be extremely helpful to quickly prioritize where to expand or improve your product next. Try something like the RICE prioritization method by Intercom and tweak it to fit your prioritization needs.

Prioritize heavily to maximize your product development efficiency.

Analytical Problem Solving

Another important skill is analytical problem-solving. As a PM, you are expected to decode what the user is thinking, translate those insights to product requirements, and make sure that things are working as intended.

Throughout this process, you’ll come across many blockers and issues that will need your attention. For example: if a bug comes up that stops a big customer from using a feature on your product, how will you fix it? Maybe you’ll ask how often they use this product, what metrics it will impact, or if it’s stopping them from a core action.

Whatever you like to employ in your problem-solving techniques, make sure that they’re rooted in logic. Dig into why problems happen, how you can quickly fix them, and try back up your decisions with data when possible. Very seldom do you want to solve product problems with ‘gut feelings’.

Use analytical problem solving to diagnose and solve major issues.

Adaptivity

The last skill that PMs should absolutely have is adaptivity. Very rarely will everything go according to plan. Be ready to change directions quickly, don’t rely too heavily on pre-packaged frameworks, and don’t get frustrated when you need to go to plan b.

To practice this, whenever you employ a solution, consider all of the risks that could make things go wrong. Try to play devil’s advocate to your own plans and see if you can poke holes any holes. Take those risks and log them somewhere, making sure you have some sort of plan of action to address them should the need arise.

You should always expect the unexpected as a PM!

Other Skills & Next Steps

You may have noticed that coding, domain expertise, people management, or some other skills weren’t mentioned. All of these skills are certainly helpful, but the degree that they’re necessary varies widely by the type of PM, the product organization, and even the industry they’re in. Use the skills mentioned in this article to build a solid PM foundation off of!

Want more tips on how you can build your PM skillset? Join Exponent today to learn about our upcoming PM Skills Course as well as to learn from PM experts, practice PM interviews, and start your journey in Product Management!

Jeff Lee

Jeff Lee

Startup Product Manager. Former PM @Autodesk. Co-founder @Roughdraftgames. Georgia Tech & Berkeley Alum. Fluent in Rocket Science & Slack. DM about Technology, Board Games, ATL sports.

Read More