In a previous newsletter, I reflected on my career in product management and shared some lessons I’d learned. One section, in particular, seemed to generate the most responses:
In product management, there’s an art and a science. The “art” gets dismissed as soft skills. When PMs fail, it’s usually because of “The Art.” The most important thing you can do early in your career is grow these skills. Don’t let them be dismissed as “soft skills,” don’t get lured by the promise of tactics and techniques: they’re essential, but the craft depends more on the art over the long term.
I want to explore “The Art” further today. My hope with this essay is that we can all begin to appreciate how critical these so-called soft skills—or rather, “human skills”—are to product management.
(I’m certainly not the first to point this out. Folks like Petra Wille, Kate Leto, Teresa Torres, and Lisa Zane have explored this. It’s just that all that other “Science-y” stuff—the frameworks, models, tools, threads 🧵👇, and methodologies—suck up so much of the oxygen in the PM community.)
Allow me to head off a response I’m sure to receive: “This applies to anyone. None of this is specific to product managers.” Yes, that’s exactly right! And it’s precisely why they’re often overlooked and matter so much. Anyone will benefit from building these muscles. But they are crucial for success in product management.
The skills that comprise “The Art” primarily fall into six purpose areas. Let’s call them “The Six C’s:”
- Communication: the ability to connect and share with other people
- Collaboration: the ability to work with other people and support their ability to work with each other
- Creativity: the ability to transcend the traditional and concoct something new
- Critical thinking: the ability to analyze, evaluate, and form an objective judgment
- Curiosity: the ability to form a strong desire to know what is unknown
- Consciousness: the ability to develop the inner strength to navigate, cope, and grow
A first-time PM on my team once complained, “I feel like all I do is talk to people, saying the same things over and over. When do I get to do real work?” Communication is the work.
- Listening: Active listening leads to understanding, but few do it well. It takes practice and self-management to really, truly listen. You’ll learn a lot from Ximena Vengoechea’s book Listen Like You Mean It.
- Writing: Mastering the written form is becoming even more essential for product managers than when I began my career. More companies are following in the footsteps of Amazon and Stripe and becoming document-first cultures. No matter where you work, you’ll need to be a concise, clear, compelling writer. There are many marvelous books to enjoy here, but Stephen King’s On Writing is my favorite.
- Persuasion: Whether it’s evangelizing the solution you and your team decided upon or convincing another team to make necessary prioritization changes, you’ll need to exercise your persuasion skills constantly. Fortunately, Aristotle taught us how to do this more than 2,000 years ago.
- Influence: As a product manager, people might look to you for direction—and they’re trusting that you’ll know what’s best. But you’re not usually the boss, so influence must be earned. Read the classic Influence Without Authority.
- Saying no: Product managers want to be helpful and are easily distracted by interesting, new things. Saying no doesn’t come with the backing of formal authority, and saying no to customers (and sometimes their money!) can be intimidating. But learning to say no assertively and gracefully is one of the most important skills a product manager can uncover, especially early in their career. My choice here is William Ury’s celebrated The Power of a Positive No.
- Storytelling: The best storytellers know how to captivate their audience and evoke emotions. You’ll learn more about great storytelling from reading fiction, reading comic books, or watching films than from any book on business presentations. Check out Pixar Storytelling or Pixar’s 22 rules.
- Empathy: Putting yourself in the place of another human being and seeing the world through their eyes allows us to build better products and create more inclusive, happier, and nurturing environments. Check out the definitive Nonviolent Communication. Oh, and read fiction.
Being a part of a team builds on many skills we learned in kindergarten—sharing, saying please, and cooperating. But collaboration is more than that. As leaders, collaboration is not only about our ability to play well with others; it’s about building and supporting an environment that values and encourages teamwork.
- Team-building: As a PM, you’re part coach, motivational speaker, therapist, and mediator, bringing disparate parts together. See what you can learn about team-building from jazz great Miles Davis in my talk, Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable.
- Facilitation: Shaping and guiding the process for how a group of people work toward goals and accomplish what they set out to do requires a gentle but assertive touch. Or, as my friend Matt LeMay puts it, “The tactics of how to get ten people on a Zoom call to somehow make a decision together.”
- Giving and receiving feedback: In the spirit of growth, product managers should be quick to give—and accept—feedback. Not everyone can do this well, and sadly, it’s easy to do it poorly. I recommend the classic book, Thanks For The Feedback.
- Promoting psychological safety: If we want our teams to share bold ideas or challenge popular thinking, they must know they have a safe environment. Everyone can contribute to this, but as leaders bridging multiple teams and perspectives, we have a special obligation to foster psychological safety. I recommend anything by Amy Edmondson and Tom Geraghty’s fantastic newsletter and toolkits.
- Dealing with difficult people and situations: Difficult people and situations warrant action and response on our part, especially when you’re called upon to intervene on behalf of your team. Check out Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most from the Harvard Negotiation Project.
Creativity will help you solve customer problems, outmaneuver your competitors, and see around corners. Determining the right solution—which isn’t necessarily the fastest, cheapest, or least complex—requires creative thinking.
- Taste: There are intangibles and great nuance to understanding how your customers will accept the products your team delivers. Sometimes your sense of taste and beauty will need to be your guide. Ancient philosophers were on top of this as well.
- Product sense: A recent survey indicated that product sense—what I’ve called “product spidey-sense”—may be one of the most critical skills a product manager must perfect. It builds on taste, intuition, and empathy. Jules Walter penned an in-depth exploration.
- Seeing patterns: Sometimes, a product manager’s most important contribution is just… noticing. You may find inspiration in entirely unrelated industries or situations because you can identify the patterns and how they may play out for your specific product. Some of the most brilliant innovations in history came from connecting one field to another.
- Dreaming: The best products in 10-20 years will look very different from how we might imagine them today. Know when to suspend disbelief and let go of the implementation details. I’ve written about this in 10x Not 10% and Ants and Aliens.
What does it mean to be a critical thinker? For product managers, it’s the ability to analyze facts, synthesize, draw inferences, and solve problems.
- Truth-seeking: Much has been written about the observational, logical, analytical, and synthesizing aspects of critical thinking, but one overriding motivation brings them together: the persistent pursuit of the truth. Product managers must be relentless about truth-seeking, whether it’s when uncovering customer problems, analyzing data, or getting to the bottom of a bug.
- Probability and statistics: Product managers need to understand statistics, probability, and uncertainty. I recommend decision scientist and poker champion Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets.
- Interpreting patterns: You’ll be able to draw conclusions by synthesizing the patterns you recognize, even when they may not be completely obvious to most.
- Daring to be wrong: Product managers must be bold enough to present solutions that might not work. But if they do, they have the potential to be industry-changing. This skill requires not being overly attached to your ideas or approaches. Having the humility to let go of needing to be right.
- Understanding bias: Product managers need to understand cognitive biases and account for them, especially when they’re our own. Confirmation bias, outcome bias, and the sunk cost fallacy are common PM afflictions. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Product managers understand that there are many layers underlying customer decisions and behaviors. Curiosity motivates us to keep digging in —and getting to the “why.”
- Awe and wonder: Think of a moment when you were taken back in awe? Maybe it was the first time you grappled with the size of the universe or experienced an incredible feat of human athletic achievement. Harness that emotion and pour it into your products. It’s good for you.
- Openness to new ideas: Being open-minded to new ways of thinking—from any source—is an essential product management skill. What can I learn from this? What does the team know today that we didn’t know yesterday? What is still unknown?
- Championing diversity and inclusion: Your team members, customers, and users will represent countless ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, and other groups. If we want to build winning products for everyone in the world we need to lean into our curiosity. That can help us to learn, listen, admit our mistakes, and grow. I’ve been enjoying Ruchika Tulshyan’s new book, Inclusion on Purpose.
- Daring to be wrong: You’re not always going to be correct. You and your team will make mistakes, and you must be willing to do so. As I write this, I’m looking at a framed print by my pal Mike Monteiro with this phrase: “Let’s Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow.” I can’t imagine a more appropriate product management tagline.
This is the big one. Consciousness is all about being rather than doing. It’s the self-awareness to understand who you must be to endure the bumps and bruises along the way and grow stronger as a result. The resilience to build a career you love and to avoid burnout. Mind, body, and heart—the whole person. Invest in yourself with therapy, coaching, fitness, wellness, and mindfulness.
- Emotional intelligence (EQ): Some might argue this is the most crucial product management skill. There was a time when feeling your feelings was considered a sign of weakness, and talking from the head was the only acceptable way to operate. Now we know that EQ is just as important as IQ, or even more so. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is the gold standard, but I also highly recommend The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.
- Balance, mental health, and wellness: The day-to-day life of a product manager can be exhausting. You’ll take care of your products and teams, but be sure to take care of yourself, too. Create space for friends, family, hobbies, music, and other activities that bring you joy. Staying healthy, exercising, and practicing mindfulness will help you achieve the inner strength to be present.
- Sense of purpose: Find your purpose and let it fuel you. Put it into words: What is the impact you want to have on the world, and what is it that you uniquely offer?
- Dealing with the inner critic: We all have self-sabotaging inner “voices” that work to hold us back. Sometimes called the inner critic, the judge, or saboteur, these forces can produce feelings of shame, anxiety, incompetence, and failure and contribute to imposter phenomenon. These voices never go away—after all, it’s neuroscience—but we can train ourselves to cope with and even control our saboteurs. For more on this, check out Chatter by psychologist Ethan Kross.
- Understanding your values: Find work in line with your values, as it will only motivate you to be an even better product manager. Values are who we are, but they’re often not front and center in our lives. They might be suppressed or neglected. Learning to connect with your values and letting them guide you through difficult decisions will help you lead a life of resonance and fulfillment. Brené Brown has excellent resources for exploring your values, including exercises on her website and an entire chapter in her book Dare to Lead.
I’m confident I’ve overlooked many vital skills. And there’s a great deal of ambiguity: That’s why I depicted the purpose areas as overlapping circles. Many skills fit under several practice areas. The Six C’s amplify and reinforce each other. They’re squishy, subjective, and open to a million different interpretations.
It is art, after all.