5 Minutes with Dan Olsen
We’re proud to have Dan Olsen, author of “The Lean Product Playbook“, speaking at both of our conferences in Melbourne and Sydney. With a vast experience in the industry, Dan has some great advice and experience in Product Management Leadership and the qualities one must possess to be effective in such a role. Here’s some of Dan’s input…
1. In what ways has Product Management evolved over the last 5 years?
I think Product Management continues to gain broader recognition as a critical function for the success of a tech company.
I think there are two main ways product management has evolved over the last 5 years is that product managers are increasingly expected to be much savvier in both user experience (UX) design and in analytics.
Like product management, UX design is a discipline that continues to gain broader recognition. Over time, the bar has been rising on how good your product’s UX needs to be. Software product managers usually work closely with UX designers. Product managers shouldn’t limit themselves to text-based artefacts such as PRDs, user stories, and Powerpoint presentations. Product managers are increasingly being called on to contribute to good UX design. At a minimum, product managers should know enough to be able to evaluate and critique a product design. Many product teams often don’t have a UX designer, so product managers often have to step up to fill that void. I believe wire-framing is an important skill for product managers (even if you do have a UX designer on your team). It’s very valuable to be able to create low fidelity representations of possible solutions to the customer problems you’re trying to solve. Plus, modern tools have made it easier than ever. Balsamiq https://balsamiq.com is one of my favorite tools to quickly create a set of clickable wireframes to illustrate a product idea. If you don’t have a go-to wire-framing tool, then I recommend you invest in learning one.
The second area companies expect product manager to be savvier in is analytics. Product management is about making good decisions. And while many decisions can still only be made with judgement and intuition, good product teams increasingly utilize analytics to inform their decisions. Strong product managers use analytics to gain insights into how customers are really using their product, to optimize conversion funnels, and to improve the user experience. As with wire-framing, modern analytics tools such as Mixpanel and Google Analytics make it easier than ever. Strong product teams use data and analytics to make product decision and iterate quickly to improve product-market fit. A/B testing, where you test two or more alternatives simultaneously to compare their performance is a technique that is increasingly used, especially with business-to-consumer (B2C) products.
2. Why is Product Management important in your business?
I consult to software companies in product management. Product management is important to their businesses because PM helps ensure what the engineering team builds is what customers want. PM helps drive how much value the company is creating for customers. PM also help ensure the various parts of the company are aligned on goals, planning, and execution.
3. How do you lead teams to develop and launch products in your business?
As a leader, one of the most important things you can do is to ensure everyone on your team has a shared understanding of what the team is trying to accomplish and why. Setting clear objectives and effectively communicating them is key.
Coordinating the efforts of the team is important for success, too. It’s important to divide responsibilities and organize teams in a way that make accountability clear.
Finally, frequent communication is important. Product development is a team sport and it’s impossible to figure everything out in advance. Assumptions will turn out to be wrong, team members will realize there are things they didn’t think about, and priorities will get shifted. The only defence against the naturally chaotic nature of product development is frequent communication to ensure the team can get on the same page about the new information and agree on how they plan to react to it.
4. Are there specific leadership qualities that a product manager must possess to be effective at the role?
Yes, I think 4 leadership qualities are important.
- Being able to effectively influence others. Product managers always work with people in other key functions that don’t report to them, such as development or design. So the ability to influence without authority is key. Influencing is more than just having good ideas and sharing them. Persuading others relies on being skilled at listening and empathy. Listening means that you are truly hearing other people’s opinions and concerns versus just advocating your own ideas. Empathy means understanding why each person has those opinions and concerns and being able to make them feel heard. A good product manager is able to speak everyone else’s language to help different people on the team see the entire elephant instead of just the trunk or tail.
- Strategic thinking. Tactics and execution are important, but so is making sure you are working on the right things. Good product managers are able to zoom out to the big picture to figure out how their team will win in the marketplace. My favorite definition of strategy is what you are saying “no” to. It’s easy to say “yes” to every customer request or internal idea.
- Prioritization. There are always more ideas than resources. Closely related to being strategic is being able to prioritize product work. Having 10 high priority items doesn’t help provide clarity: the best way to get clear about priorities is to rank order them. Things will, of course, change over time. Having a rank order doesn’t mean being inflexible. It’s okay to change your rank order as new information arises. It’s also important to be able to explain why you are rank ordering things the way you are. Priority should be based on a “return on investment” approach, where you take into account estimated value and estimated effort. That means you have to have a clear sense of how each product idea will create values for your customers and your business.
- Team-wide communication. Good product managers are often the “hub” of a product team. They are the glue that ensures the different people in the organization are all on the same page. This is called “shared vision” or “line of sight”. It takes proactive communication and realizing when someone who is out of the loop needs to be brought in. Good product managers develop a natural instinct for reaching out to the right people at the right time and keeping the team apprised overall.
5. How did you get into Product Management?
I first learned about product management while I was in business school at Stanford. The more I learned about product management, the more confident I became that I would enjoy it as a career. I asked around to find out which company people considered the best place to learn product management. The consensus was Intuit, so I interviewed there and became a software product manager there. Once I started, I realized that even though the job I had before business school — managing submarine design — wasn’t in software, it had basically been product management, just in a different setting. In addition, I started coding when I was 10 years old and had created several applications on my own. Intuit lived up to expectations: it was an amazing place to learn product management as well as software development, UX design, market research, and marketing.