As a product leader, I believe that helping your team grow and develop is one of my most critical responsibilities. The first step to growing as a product manager is understanding the skills that are required and what “great” looks like for each of these skills. Then, stock can be taken of the current level in each of these skills to understand strength and areas of development, and based on that, development plans can be agreed.
Different product managers certainly have different strengths, and different environments require different profiles of product managers (consider, for example, about the different emphasis in UX and technical domain skills in a consumer-facing mobile app vs. a developer tool). In general, however, it is worth noting that product management is a role with a generalist profile—product managers are expected to fill any gaps not filled by other team members. For that reason, product managers can't afford to be really weak in any of the skills.
What are the essential product management skills, then? I tried to come up with a comprehensive (but reasonably concise) list. These skills fall into five categories of four skills each:
- Foundational “human” skills
- Domain skills
- Discovery skills
- Execution skills
- Leadership skills
Foundational “human” skills
Human skills are often referred to as “soft” skills. I don't really like this name: “soft” skills are often harder to acquire than ”hard” skills. Product management is such a relationship-heavy line of work that human skills are more important than any domain-specific skills. Of particular importance are these four foundational skills, without which it is basically impossible to be an effective product manager:
Communication covers communicating effectively, clearly, and concisely in all channels (e.g., document, message, face to face), employing the most effective channels. Effective communication requires empathy with the counter-party, including tailoring the message to the audience. Communication doesn't refer just to broadcasting information, it also includes active listening and understanding what others are communicating.
Empathy means understanding what other people are experiencing from within their frame of reference and what their needs, problems, and motivations are. Product managers regularly interact with a variety of other people who product managers require empathy towards, e.g., stakeholders, team members, customers, partners, etc.
Ownership includes making and delivering on high-integrity commitments, following up and not letting tasks slip between the cracks, and doing whatever it takes to move the product forward and unblock the team. Ownership is first and foremost a mindset, but it's also a skill, it requires being organized enough to make sure that all bases are covered.
Agency refers to being pro-active and driven, exhibiting high resilience, being tolerant of ambiguity, and finding a way to get results without waiting for conditions to be perfect or blaming circumstances. It is related to but different from ownership: ownership means recognizing problems and wanting to address them, agency means pushing through even in the face of adversity.
Product management is often depicted as the classic Venn diagram showing the intersection of business, technology, and UX. These are, of course, the functions that product management frequently interacts with, and having “hard” domain knowledge in these areas is important for effectiveness as a product manager. For one thing, product managers need to be able to interact and communicate with people from these functions without too much friction in “translating”. In addition, product managers often have to facilitate or make trade-off decisions in which several of these functional aspects are at odds with each other.
There are different ways to group these domain specific skills. I find the following grouping useful:
- Customer & industry
- Product & UX
Customer & industry domain skills cover the understanding and making correct trade-off decisions about the needs and use cases of the customers, as well as constraints and trends of the industry you are operating in. This includes industry dynamics (Porter's Five Forces) as well as applicable rules, regulations, and other constraints.
Technology domain skills include understanding and making correct trade-off decisions about the tech stack, key dependencies, and drivers of feasibility and complexity. Technology skills are helpful to communicate with the engineering team members, helping identify technical issues, as well as foreseeing technical challenges.
Business domain skills are about understanding and making correct trade-off decisions about the business model, go-to-market approach, and competitive position. Business domain skills are helpful in communing and forging relationships with stakeholders from the go-to-market side as well as external stakeholders, for example partners or investors.
Product & UX domain skills refer to understanding the product, the customer and user experience and its drivers. It means having good product ideas and instincts on macro (what features to build) and micro level (UI), and making correct trade-off decisions from a user and customer experience perspective. Product and UX skills are both general (“product sense”) and specific (knowledge about the specific product area the product manager is working on).
Discovery skills are about embracing the uncertainty of product development by being able to analyze problems and opportunities from a customer and business perspective, prioritizing them, and validating solution ideas. I like to think about these four discovery skills:
- Customer discovery
- Metrics & analytics
- Decision making
- Product discovery and validation
Customer discovery skills are about being able to employ the practices and tools to understand customer needs and identify opportunities to address these needs. A product manager skilled in customer discovery effortlessly employs tools such as continuous user interviewing, observational studies, surveys, and desktop research.
Metrics & analytics skills refer to understanding and being able to define key metrics for the product and individual features, as well as hypothesizing metrics impact of product changes. Product managers skilled in metrics & analytics are able to independently access and analyze data through the available tools (e.g., product analytics, BI, spreadsheets, SQL).
Decision making covers framing ambiguous problems and breaking them apart, collecting the appropriate amount of relevant information and stakeholder input to make decisions, and ensuring decisions are made and followed up on in a timely manner.
Product discovery & validation includes finding and validating the solutions to the problems identified in customer discovery. Important aspects of the skill are continuously identifying and validating riskiest assumptions, prioritizing outcomes over outputs, and understanding and making use of validation tools (e.g., usability studies, prototype testing, A/B testing).
Execution skills are all about getting things done. For product managers, execution skills are relevant both in terms of getting their own work done, but also ensuring that the whole team executes well, and continuously improves their work processes.
The relevant skills are:
- Focus & prioritization
- Team collaboration
- Delivery process
- Continuous improvement
Focus & prioritization skills mean the ability to set up and maintain a clear focus of the product manager's own work as well as that of the team—doing “fewer things better”. Product managers that are great in this skill consistently prioritize their and the team's time correctly, limit work in progress, and ensure balance in their and their team's workload.
Team collaboration skills are of course paramount for product managers: working effectively with the cross-functional product team, building good and effective working relationships, involving the whole team in the product discovery process, and building a culture of psychological safety.
Delivery process skills refer to understanding and effectively playing a part in the delivery process (e.g., writing specs and tickets, ensuring QA happens, planning, executing and communicating launches), as well as ensuring team members are always unblocked. It is worth noting that while there are certain best practices with regards to delivery processes, they can still vary quite substantially even among high performing companies.
Continuous improvement means the ability, willingness and drive to identify and address improvement potential in processes and ways of working. It covers regularly and effectively running retrospectives and ensuring action items are implemented, as well as proposing, getting buy-in for and experimenting with process changes.
Leadership is an interesting aspect of the product manager role. Product management is always a leadership role: the product manager's mandate is to facilitate the identification of opportunities and then to align the team and marshal its capacity to capitalize on these opportunities. Product managers rarely have formal authority, so they have to lean even more strongly on intellectual and interpersonal leadership skills to get results, including:
- Product direction
- Outcomes and product roadmap
- Stakeholder management
- Feedback & coaching
Product direction skills refer to owning and shaping the product direction (product vision and strategy), evangelizing the product direction to team and stakeholders and generating excitement around it. Great product managers are able to paint a vivid picture of where the product should evolve and then ensure that the day-to-day work is always linked to this vision.
Objectives and product roadmap skills mean translating product direction into the work of the product team. These skills include negotiating team objectives, working with the team to turn opportunities and objectives into feature ideas, prioritizing opportunities and solutions, and getting buy-in to prioritization and roadmap.
Stakeholder management means involving, collecting input from and managing the relationship with stakeholders outside of the product team, and ensuring stakeholder concerns are taken into account in product decisions.
Feedback & coaching becomes more and more important the more senior a product manager becomes. It covers feedback to team members, stakeholders, reports, and managers, coaching and mentoring of junior team members, as well as providing growth and career development opportunities to junior team members.
That's my list of 5x4 product management skills. Some of them aren't 100% overlap-free, of course, and there might be gaps, too – but hopefully this is a reasonably comprehensive list of skills to build or assess product managers on.
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