The role of interconnectedness in product work

“What makes an excellent product manager?” was a question I was recently asked while speaking to somebody who is currently working remote in a product role.

One of my favorite responses to this is how Marty Cagan describes the role of a product manager as being in charge of “discovering solutions that are valuable, usable, feasible and viable”. There are obviously lots of tools that help a product manager getting better at executing along the lines of each of these dimensions. And if you want to understand this at a deeper level, I wholeheartedly recommend reading up on his thoughts on this. I’ve subscribed to his newsletter for many years and found his thinking around how to build organizational structures around these dimensions super helpful in working with my product teams.

What is maybe not so obvious at first sight and potentially not the first avenue a new product manager will explore when looking to improve their skills, is how virtually everything you do to succeed in a product role is interdependent on working well with other people. I kept thinking “it takes a village” when I look back on what it took for me to build any kind of product success in any of the organizations I worked for to date.

You build solutions for people (which is where the value lies), you work with people to discover them (the people you build for and your UX researchers), you work with people to understand feasibility (typically your engineering lead), you work with people to understand what viability looks like (e.g. your senior management team, your Finance team), you work with people to bring solutions to market (your product marketing, legal and sales teams), you evaluate with people whether your solution is useful (the people you build for and your UX researchers), you work with people when you prioritize and communicate your prioritization decisions, you work with people when you are making goals, you basically work with people all day long. Most of these people don’t report to you, so you have to find ways to engage with them despite the fact that they may have many things on their plate and certainly not a full time focus to support you. At the core of your success in any of these activities, lies how you relate to people. So what sets an excellent product manager apart from others also has to do with their interpersonal skills.

And here is where I strongly believe that a interconnected mindset and leadership style will serve you well. If you truly believe – and act in accordance with this belief -, that each of the people you interact with on a daily basis is equally important as a human being and equally capable to be a great team player in discovering those solutions you want to create, then you find ways to show up with curiosity, non-judging language, appreciation, generosity and a willingness to serve. You will likely have a reflected approach to trust building, how to have difficult conversations, framing failures as learning opportunities, emotions as data points, a focus on mastery (rather than perfectionism), and the courage to accept that you will be wrong plenty of times (which is the price of admission for being on the path of continuous and courageous learning and improvement). The good news is: All of these are skills you can learn and all of these can result in behaviors positively touching the experience of other human beings with you.

A lot of this works best if you are able to connect with and build authentic, vulnerable and trusting relationships with the people around you. Regardless of whether they are somebody you meet for the first time (like that person you see for the first time in a discovery interview) or somebody you work with on a daily basis (like an engineer in your team). Unfortunately this works best in person, and is a lot harder to do in a remote context where we don’t have access to somebody’s full body language, and we each sit behind a screen. My best advice for product people working in remote contexts is to be crystal clear on how important it is to focus on the relationship layer of any interaction, it is just as important as the content of the conversation itself. This does not at all mean to turn into a people pleaser or to shy away from difficult conversations that need to be had, but it does mean educating yourself, practicing to get better at and ultimately having effective conversations, especially when they need to address something difficult. I found a focus on non-violent conversation techniques, making sure to reveal my authentic self (even if that feels deeply vulnerable), listening skills, learning about emotional agility, my own reaction patterns to fear and anxiety, and breathing as a way to stay calm and centered, extremely helpful.

I also would always recommend for a product person to have a wide net of relationships in their organizations and into the community of people they build solutions for. Any of these relationships and touchpoints can surface an insight, can teach you something, can show you where you are missing the mark, might help you co-create, might help you get a job done, might help you grow and are opportunities to act generous, compassionate and supportive yourself. Making time and getting very intentional about healthy thriving relationships is at the core of seeing the world as an interconnected web of humans who all strive to live a good life. A life filled with joyful, connected, flowing and fun experiences, a life that has us experience generosity, appreciation, happiness and love. It helps to remember that about each of the people you will work with on a daily basis. We each want that life, we each want to collaborate in a meaningful way, we each want to be appreciated for our contributions and we will want to celebrate our successes together once we have jointly built them. You can accelerate that with showing up to your product role in an intentionally interconnected way.

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

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