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The 5 Essential Skills of a Great Product Manager: What You Need to Succeed

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By Jackie Bavaro
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With 15 years of experience as a product manager, people manager, and manager of managers, working for Google, Microsoft, and Asana, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a great product manager. Big takeaway? The product manager role is actually pretty ambiguous, and can change from company to company. 

Despite the inconsistency in job descriptions and job ladders, the important underlying PM skills are consistent across companies. I’ve outlined 5 tips that all great product managers should know in order to be successful at the role — no matter how different your role is, or where you are in your career, these 5 things are key to succeeding as a product manager.

Want to get even more insights on product management? Check out my books: Cracking the PM Interview, and Cracking the PM Career. 

1. Start with goals, then align them

What is the ultimate aim for your product? What does “success” look like? Is everybody on your team on board with the same goals? 

These are the most fundamental questions a product manager should ask at every stage of the product journey, from discovery to delivery and debriefing. You should identify and reinforce your goals — and not just for products either. Goal-oriented meetings and schedules will keep your team on track.

2. Validate your ideas early

Does your end user really want the feature you intend to spend two quarters creating? Are you sure you understand how your product will be used, and if it ultimately serves its purpose? 

Before investing critical time and funds into any concept, validate it early on. Learning how to check your assumptions in the most efficient manner will increase your effectiveness as a PM. Sometimes all it takes is calling a handful of users and asking for their opinions.

3. Study great products to inspire creativity

Product teardowns, which involve “disassembling” a product to identify different areas for improvement, are a valuable way of discovering what works and what doesn’t.

The heart of creativity is cross-applying solutions from other domains, so don’t just limit your teardowns to your competitors.  Learn to recognize great ideas whenever — and wherever — you see them, and focus on the positives as well as the negatives. Teardowns shouldn’t be all about everything a product does wrong, but what a product gets right.

4. Make your roadmap like a charcuterie board

Ranked lists only work well when all of the items go after a single goal. Great PMs know that most product teams have multiple important goals, such as gaining new customers AND retaining the current customers. Or adding new functionality AND keeping the code base maintainable so development times don’t increase. Balancing your portfolio enables you to deliver better results while remaining true to the product’s goals and constraints. 

This method helps you prioritize where to invest time and money, preventing one idea from taking over the whole project. I love using the analogy of a charcuterie board to represent how to build your roadmap. A great charcuterie board and roadmap has variety – not all salami!

5. Look beyond sales requests and get to the root of the problem

As PM, it’s your job to translate solutions and features requests into the root problem that needs to be solved. Requests will always be prescriptive — it’s only natural for users (and executives) to ask for the end features they want. You’ll need to reverse-engineer the problem from the suggested solution.

As PM, you should be asking why. If the Head of Sales wants a software feature to export data to a spreadsheet, what are they going to use it for? It could be the root problem isn’t the lack of an Export button, but the lack of an analysis dashboard within the software. The most successful PMs look beyond the requests they receive to discover the underlying goals that their products are failing to satisfy.

Want to get deeper into the product manager career? Read my books, Cracking the PM Interview, and Cracking the PM Career, or follow me on twitter at @jackiebo!

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Written by
Jackie Bavaro
Jackie Bavaro is a product manager at Asana, a leading startup that builds productivity software used by companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Uber, Foursquare, and Pinterest. Previously, she worked as a Product Manager at Google, where she joined as part of the elite Associate Product Manager program, and as a Program Manager at Microsoft. She holds a BA in Computer Science and a BA in Economics from Cornell University.