Question everything! Well perhaps not everything, but a pretty good assumption at any point in time is that your assumptions could be wrong. To give some examples:
Customer: “This is really important to us!”
Product Manager: “So please help me understand _why_ this is important to you?”
Product Manager: “Is it to solve it this particular way or to solve it at all that is important to you?”
Product Manager: “If we could do X now, and Y later, would that mitigate the urgency of full resolution of this issue?”
Question any and all assumptions you could think of. It will help give you a better perspective on what is actually important to the client and help you prioritize more accurately.
Also, always keep a creative mind going. Ask questions in your head. Is there someone on the phone they are trying to impress? Is there power play going on? Are they stressed on this matter by their organization because of other issues that are also open and stressing? Is the person having a bad day?
Try to keep an open mind, and keep asking questions (out loud or in your head) to help clarify and help bring in perspective. Do not decide to be right on any specific part, you will be much more successful in your final design or resolution if you question your assumptions. The product manager role should strive to be competitive, to win the market. Obviously. But you will fail as a product manager if you are stuck on the winning-juice in every context. If you find yourself always wanting to win the argument or always striving to be right or come up with the best solution themselves you should know that you are probably not a very good product manager at that point in time. Try to question yourself at that moment and bring back the openness to other approaches and alternatives. Perhaps there is an even better idea in the room or a better design around the corner?
One possible negative side effect of stretching or practicing this skill set is that you might become annoying with your questioning at first. Be aware. Especially if it does not come naturally to you, make sure to stay aware and balance when to speak out loud and when to ask the questions just in your head. People might get a bit irritated with too many questions. Especially personality types that are a bit insecure about themselves or their accomplishments. Being questioned can come across as you are questioning their capabilities, while all you are trying to do is to understand if the solution meets the needs of the customers. Something to consider if you see people get defensive around you when you question is to pay more attention on how you actually phrase your questions. Seek the helpful-seeking tone. Question the use of a proxy, a listener, or whatever component X, not the capabilities of the person presenting the solution. Example:
Scene: A solution to a customer need has been presented to you by an engineer.
Problem: You think there is a scale issue in the design.
Direct question: “Why did you pick just one server here, wouldn’t that become a scale bottleneck?” (by pointing out “you” it indirectly put a spotlight on the person that might or might not be mature enough to handle it well)
Indirect question: “Would the solution perform better if we added a way to run multiple servers and distribute the load between them, or would the additional complexity be too costly? Help me understand the pros and cons in this context”. (by focusing on the solution and putting yourself in a help-seeking position, you will offload the tension of who is right or wrong and instead set a foundation for an open discussion around the solution)
There is a time for questioning, but also a time to let other people ask their questions. Listening might be hard, but is key to be a good product manager. It is sometimes also hard to be approachable if you aren’t by nature. There are however ways to mitigate this, for instance by the “or did I miss something” ending to assertive conversations. Whenever you have presented a big piece of information or some new direction and you’d like to encourage interactive feedback in a group, it is sometimes challenging to facilitate the open discussion you desire – especially when you have multiple teams or organizations on the phone, with different company cultures, and where you can’t read their body language. Here are a few tips that have worked for me on creating a safer space for feedback giving and questioning:
- Make sure the groups are small
- If larger are necessary, make sure you have had 1-1s with most, if not all, attendees ahead of time, to collect feedback in private – creates much more interaction if people are prepared.
- Make pauses after each key delivery and ask any welcoming question, such as:
- Does this make sense? (helping them to question what you just said)
- Did any important aspect got missed? (opening up for other opinions and views being _important_, and everybody likes being important so it might encourage them to speak up…)
- What other options are there to achieve this goal? (reinforcing the goal, but opens up for other options to get there)
- Now time for feedback – and it doesn’t have to be fully baked, in this session I’d just like to hear initial reactions (this might help take away pressure on the audience to try to sound smart…)
- If it is a web meeting, you could encourage people to post ideas and questions in the chat privately to you.
- If nothing is said still, you might like to propose follow up afterwards: please email me once you’ve had time to brew all this new material…
This is what I had in my mind today on asking questions. Might pop up more tips at another point in time.