First, let's agree on what it means to be an effective product manager.
Effective PMs are great at identifying opportunities, turning them into solutions, rallying the team(s) to get the product to market fast, and avoiding distractions.
Good. That's your answer right there.
To become an effective PM, level up the following skills:
- Identifying opportunities.
- Coming up with solutions.
- Getting people on board, motivated, and moving in the right direction.
- Staying focused on the right things.
Let's go through them one by one.
Product management isn't about doing what you're told to do. It's about figuring out what to do, then finding a way to do it.
There are great inventors, and there are great entrepreneurs, and as a PM you're kinda both. While Henry Ford didn't invent the first car, he did figure out a way to mass-produce cars, which created a market for them. The Wright brothers were inventors and entrepreneurs, even if Wright airplanes weren't exactly Model T's.
No one's going to tell you what success means for your product. You might not even know what the product will be in the first place. It's up to you to find this out.
So how do you identify opportunities?
You interact with people. You talk, you observe, you listen. You interact with your current and past customers, your competitors' users, your leads, your market.
And you aim to prove yourself wrong. If you do a good job at trying to prove yourself wrong and your idea still stands, you might be onto something.
You interact with ideas. You read, you research, you analyze. First you go broad, then you go deep. You learn to create connections between diverse ideas.
That's how you identify opportunities others have missed.
You interact with products. You look at what others are doing, and at what they're not doing. Why are they not doing it? Is their reason for not doing it good enough?
And you think!
Great PMs think big. Great PMs think out of the box. Great PMs are creative as much as they're analytical. Great PMs are both visionary and detail-oriented, and can switch between these modes with little overhead.
Coming up with solutions
Average PMs build features, great PMs solve problems. Big difference!
A feature is what your product does. A solution is what your user needs.
It's one thing to listen to your stakeholders (including your users) and come up with a plan to build what they want from you. It's a different thing to listen to them and figure up what their problem is, and what would make for a great solution.
In many cases, what you build will be similar to what they ask for. In other cases, what your users claim they want will have little to do with what they actually need. Henry Ford didn't say the famous "faster horses" line but the point still stands:
Effective PMs are great at figuring out what users really need.
How do you come up with solutions? (You're not gonna believe this!)
Yep, you talk to people. What would PMs do if language hadn't been invented?
Great products aren't built in a vacuum. You don't strategize, analyze, and philosophize in a cave for a decade and emerge with a knee-length beard clutching the Solution in your hands. You talk to people, you observe them, and you listen to understand. Solutionizing is a creative process.
Then, you validate your solution idea.
When you think you're onto something, you take your idea, bring it to the people, and see what they have to say. If they like it, there's your product. If they pelt you with rotten tomatoes, you go back and iterate.
Getting people going
Solopreneurs and indie creators build their products themselves. Good on them! When you cross into entrepreneurship and product management territory, you're part of an ecosystem of people.
Simply getting your shit done fast doesn't make you an effective PM. What makes you an effective PM is being great at communicating, negotiating, mediating, and motivating people to get their shit done fast, and making sure they're all moving in the right direction and towards a shared goal.
How do you rally people?
Soft skills plus a goal-oriented mindset. To be a great PM, you need a combination of both. If you don't, you're either a happy-go-lucky "all talk no action" PM, or an uncompromising killjoy. You can still go far by maxing out soft skills OR relentlessness, but you probably won't be known for being an effective PM if you do.
Staying focused on the right things
Great PMs say no to 99% of feature requests, right? True, but this isn't the full picture. There’s more!
The avalanche of requests you'll face from all directions is just one source of distractions, the external one. The other source is the internal one. Your own brain playing against you by offering a million things to think about and activities to engage in at any given moment. A blessing when brainstorming, a curse when you need to stay focused.
If you've ever played with a puppy, you know what a distractible brain looks like. Dogs are taught the "watch me" command to get their attention, and as a PM you'd benefit from it, too. I’m a PM who loves dogs, trust me.
How do you avoid getting derailed by distractions?
You can't just ignore them outright, that's how you miss important insights. Instead, have a system to collect feedback as it pours in, set aside time to process it on a regular basis, and stick to your priorities aggressively.
What should your priorities be? If they haven't been established and communicated directly, you can glean them from your company's vision, mission, and strategy. Still no idea? I've got bad news for you.
And that’s how you become an effective PM:
Learn to identify opportunities, come up with solutions, rally your team around them, and stay focused!