Empathy and PMs


I have been thinking about this word for quite a bit of time these days. Whenever I am talking to folks and describing my definition of being a Product Manager – almost every trait distills down to this one word – Empathy.

Now, let me try and recollect and jot them down here –

  1. Stakeholder management – One of the key traits that I believe a PM should have. The cliche’ phrase of PM being the CEO of a product, imho loosely translates to this. Unless you are empathetic to the various parties (product, tech, marketing, operations, leadership, …), you will not be able to get them on to the same page. You need to empathetic to the tech team as to why they are resisting a decision ~ perhaps this would involve tossing out a lot of code that they just wrote; you need to understand how they feel. You need to be empathetic to the operations team ~ perhaps they are short staffed during a certain time and they cannot handle so many escalations. You need to feel this issue. And so on.
  2. Customer empathy – this is a given. A PM should be the biggest voice of the customer within the company. This might be a bit contrary to the first point, but customer empathy trumps empathy within the teams. You do not care if code needs to be rewritten, or more support staff needs to be hired, but if the customer experience is affected, it is unacceptable.
  3. Strategy Roadmapping  – this is empathy at a different plane. A product leader needs to sense the emotions of the founding/executive team and the investors (if any), to see what would deliver the best RoI for these stakeholders. Too aggressive a roadmap might seem awesome to the investors, but not to the leadership team, but too sluggish a roadmap might make the investors lose confidence. This is extremely important. This is in most cases unspoken and very subtle.
  4. Project Management – lets face it. This is a part of a Product Managers job ~ in varying degrees depending on the org. Good PMs exhibit a bias towards action(shipping) and make a dent here. While strategy/road-mapping is part of steering the ship, project management is choreographing the drum-beat of releases. You cannot do either of these without a deep sense of empathy to the executors.

And for those who are wondering if empathy is a key trait only for PMs, nope, check out Rand Fishkin’s blog where he says –

The best skill I’ve developed and the one that’s served me best as a founder, a CEO, and a marketer is empathy.

I offer coaching/training on PM empathy. If interested, please ping me on gcmouli at gmail.


Small data

We keep hearing about Big data everywhere – sometimes in places where we do not even expect to here it. I was listening to the latest Trailblazers podcast from Walter Isaacson, and he just casually dropped this nugget.

Small data is the capturing of the small, subtle nuances of a customer. A lot of times, these small seemingly insignificant subtle pieces of information lead to huge product insights.

While extracting big data, and distilling data out of it is important – it is still generalisation. It is amortised data. It is a collective. It is very important for PMs to observe customers at close quarters on a regular basis.

In my three years of observation, being a product leader, I have seen that insights distilled from big data, can only result in incremental improvements.

To get 10X improvements, we need to observe and incorporate these behavioural, often times visual, subtle insights. These are few in number – viz small data.

Decisions, decisions, decisions …

Much has been written about the functions of a Product Manager (PM). I usually do not subscribe to the ‘textbook’ definition of a ‘mini-CEO’ of a product/feature. I feel that, while there are a few overlaps between the roles, it is unfair for the CEO and for the PM to be called the ‘mini-me’ of the other.

One of the overlaps that I find very interesting is that of decision making. For a PM, and more so, for a PM leader, this is one of the key attributes. In fact, as you rise up the ranks of PM-ship, more and more of your tangible time would be going towards decision-making.

There are a few things that I wanted to talk about in this post, about decision making – in no particular order.

  • A lot of times, you would have enough data that you can lean upon, to make a decision. Why do I say ‘lean upon’? If the decision is perfect, then kudos, but then human tendency is to fall back on the data as a crutch, when the decision is wrong. The key thing in the latter scenario, is to learn from it. There is nothing more you can do from it. Accept that, data, can sometime fail you, and try and find a pattern that you can recognize in the future.
  • There are definitely times, when you would not have enough data. In a subset of these times, you also do not have the luxury of waiting for data to be got/collected. In these cases, a seasoned PM would need to take decisions based on extrapolating whatever data she has, or to be able to correlate with an analogous event/incident/feature/project and take a gut call. The key thing here, is to stick by the decision, immaterial of its outcome. Human tendency is to exhibit ‘excusitis’. Like in the previous point, learning is key.
  • There are three typical classes of decisions that PMs make on a regular basis – assumptions/trade-offs ; prioritization/road-map ; go/no-go.
    • Assumptions and trade-offs occur during mostly the planning phase. During the planning phase, the PM, along with business, and the tech-lead, need to freeze on assumptions/trade-offs to be able to ship within a certain deadline, or be able to ship with constrained resources. Resources, here, can be team, compute resources, or technology stack. These decisions sometime creep in during the execution phase – typically due to late realizations or plan changes etc. The PM’s negotiation and influencing skills also play a key role here, along with the decision making skills. Example – Given that a new feature would be hand-held by the feet-on-street teams, the first version of the feature need not have as many educational prompts.
    • Many think that prioritization and road-map decisions occur during planned times (month/quarter beginnings etc). It definitely is not. The best PMs are continuously prioritizing. Devs get sick. Servers go down. Unexpected bugs turn up. Features get new requirements. In an agile environment, a PM needs to manage all of this, and still be able to ship reasonably on time, with adequate communication to all stakeholders. New ideas do not wait for quarter beginnings to pop-up. As and when they pop-up, PMs prioritize and add to the road-map. Again, a continuous process. Example – The biggest issue is to identify if IMEI numbers of returned products match the ones in our system. Let us build a first version that will let the call-center support team do just that. Further versions can be fancier and accept direct requests.
    • Lastly, a go/no-go decision. This is when a PM works closely with QA and business teams to decide, whether a feature can go live (or not!). Time pressures and business requirements often require a feature to be shipped at a certain date/time. A lot of times, this is non-negotiable. However, a PM can take a call to go live, with a version that probably has a non-show-stopper bug. Breaking design perfection paralysis also falls into this bucket. Example – When the seller does not have stock of products, and he is prompted to give multi-tier pricing, the UI might break. Ship the feature, and fix the corner case UI in a subsequent merge.

I have not counted hiring decisions in the above list. PM leaders would need to make hire/no-hire decisions for hiring PMs in their teams. In some companies, PMs are also called up on to do an interview round for senior dev leads and designers.

PMs – have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments below. Would also love to hear examples of key decision making techniques that you follow.

Modiji, Bullet trains, and the Prioritization conundrum

PM Modi and the Japanese PM Abe jointly laid the foundation stone for the first bullet train in India. Enough has been ranted about this in social media. About, why this is not the thing that is needed now. And why the Govt should fix all the issues that is plaguing the railways and so on.

I think this is a problem that Product managers face too (Hmm. Just a coincidence that, they are PMs too.).

The feature prioritization conundrum is the scenario where a PM is faced with a host of small urgent + Important  issues/features to deliver in a short time-frame ; and a smaller bunch of longish important but more challenging hard problems to solve. The engineers want to do the latter, but the former are very important too.

A PM cannot keep prioritizing the smallish important problems higher, because they will never end. You will never get to the largish challenging problems. This will lead to your engineers getting demotivated and doing mundane familiar stuff. But at the same time, you cannot just prioritize the challenging projects – this will keep your engineers happy – but the business suffers. Some of these urgent+important tasks are most likely important for the business.

One of the solutions to this is to assign more than one task to engineers. This should be a mix of the smaller urgent tasks and the longish exciting tasks. This will keep your engineers happy and the business going.

So, does that make, what our Prime Minister did, with the bullet train right? I do not know, since I do not have enough context. But if I see the PM as a PM ( 🙂 ), then I guess he is doing the right thing.

What are we shipping today?

Ask any of the PMs who have worked with me, they will say that this is my favourite statement. I ask this statement at least once a day to them.

I was talking about this with one of the PMs who works with me, and I thought I would share some of the conversation highlights here.

  • Shipping is the most important outcome that any PM needs to aspire towards, at any given time. The more you ship, the better you are.
  • The primary reason for existence for a PM (in my humble opinion) is to ship. Sure, programmers code. Designers make the product beautiful and usable. Business folks give their requirements. Marketing folks get out the word. Customer support teams are on standby. But what is the use of all of this, if you do not ship. The PM is the glue that enables all of this to come together and ‘happen’.
  • Example of ‘shipping’ being considered a real (and an important) thing — the famous ship-it awards in Microsoft. Every stakeholder who was part of a release used to get a Ship-it award (a tiny trophy kind of thingie). MS folks proudly display these ship-it awards on their desks.
  • A lot of PMs that I know (including yours truly) come into this field from Engineering, Marketing, and various other fields. In most cases, we have boarded this ship, as a leap of faith. As a matter of fact, the best PMs are the ones who learnt on the go. It is incredibly hard to ‘explain’ to someone, or to ‘teach’ someone about ‘PM-ship’ (no puns intended). In these cases, the only way to ward off self-doubt (which is bound to happen) whether you did the right thing — is to ship. You keep shipping. And the spiral is always upward.
  • Shipping creates tangible outcomes. And it reinforces.
  • Ship incrementally. If this is not an option, get your devs to at least commit incrementally.
  • Lastly, you are known by what you ship.

The original conversation was a very free-wheeling conversation during our 1-1. And so, was this recollection of thoughts. The above is in no particular order.


(Cover image source)