Achieving alignment across teams and projects is the key to becoming an innovation engine. And it is not an easy thing to do. Engineers, designers, and business stakeholders must all understand how their work serves a two-fold goal: providing users with a delightful alternative to existing products, and in doing so, generating a financial return. However, engineers, designers, and even their clients don’t always agree on priorities or plans of action.
Recently, we released a study on design thinking among mid-sized organizations. The results showed that teams in integrated product agency environments often struggle to align release roadmaps with the company’s vision or mission. For many, this results in competitive, isolated environments that stifle innovation.
That’s where product managers come in. In many organizations, product managers are the servant leaders responsible not only for defining and proving product-market fit but also for making sure the two-fold goal remains top-of-mind for the diverse teams building the product. By championing the big picture and fostering alignment, the best product managers successfully empower those teams to bridge the vision gap.
Seven Traits Product Managers Need to Effectively Bridge the Gap
Fostering a collaborative culture isn’t easy. To succeed, product managers must cultivate personal and professional competencies beyond the product roadmap. These are the soft skills and character traits of product managers who inspire alignment and drive innovation.
To empower their teams, PMs need sophisticated facilitation skills. Facilitators create focused environments that draw out the best of each contributor. With executive stakeholders, they elicit strategic oversight that strengthens the vision and reinforces product direction. With tactics-focused employees, they draw out solutions to problems. Generally, product managers should deliver on the following three pillars of effective facilitation:
Creating Space for Purposeful Communication
The first step of facilitation is actually making time to different teams together. Typically, this means scheduling frequent check-ins at each stage of the product life cycle. These might include:
- Strategy sessions
- Roadmap reviews
- Persona and design ideation sessions
- Backlog grooming sessions
- Sprint planning
Adjusting for Audience
Some sessions will be geared toward leaders, while others will be geared toward doers. When facilitating conversations with leadership, keep the following tips in mind:
- Use the time to bring leaders up to speed on progress, simultaneously vetting direction against strategy.
- When defining relevant KPIs, mine the expertise of collective leadership with regard to the overall vision.
- Invite participation and buy-in, but don’t let leaders get bogged down by detailed action items.
Focusing the Conversation
At the start of a meeting, focus on the agenda and desired outcomes. Don’t stifle communication, but present materials and ask questions that get the conversation going in the right direction. Keep high-level conversations actionable, and step in when they become unproductive.
Facilitation dynamics change depending on the purpose of each conversation. Sometimes, product managers will need to and suggest a path forward. Other times, they’ll need to sense when it’s best to hold back and focus on drawing out ideas and insights.
Product managers must be able to effectively communicate the same vision to various teams. At a minimum, they need to empathize with engineers, designers, and business stakeholders, using terms and perspectives that relate to each group.
When communicating with business stakeholders, rely on tools such as roadmaps, journey maps, heuristic evaluations, and user testing. With design and engineering teams, focus the communication around vision as a function of delivery. Use roadmaps, process workflows, and backlogs as reference points for clear and specific conversations.
And remember: data is a universal language. In fact, product managers can communicate vision across audiences by painting pictures with data. Reference current, competitive, and aspirational metrics to outline the product’s future.
3. Team Coach
Product managers are always on the lookout for misalignment, conflicts, interpersonal issues, and other potential challenges. Knowing when to coach a designer to better advocate for their vision or when to manage a stakeholder who keeps shifting priorities is a crucial soft skill. As a result, PMs should be prepared to coach teams and individuals through these common pitfalls:
The Overly-Involved Executive Stakeholder
Sometimes, an overly enthusiastic stakeholder causes confusion and unnecessary roadblocks by micro-managing product delivery. Handling this situation requires the ability to “coach up,” or respectfully help the leader understand that their point of view is both incredibly necessary and incredibly biased.
The Uninvolved Executive Stakeholder
Without executive collaboration, it’s impossible to deliver a product that effectively executes on business strategy. In a situation where project-critical, high-up stakeholders are disconnected with the progress of a roadmap, product managers need to step forward to make personal connections.
Initiate the conversations that will elicit buy-in and support from this leader. And don’t risk fallout by waiting to connect until it’s too late.
Connected product managers can sense when their delivery teams are struggling. Solid personal relationships with team members let the best PMs roll up their sleeves and have some crucial conversations, digging into the details of what’s causing holdups.
4. Process and Tools Guru
Tools and processes allow product managers to ensure the vision is being properly executed. The best product managers use processes and tools that are flexible enough to enforce collaboration, vision, and project parameters without stifling progress. In general, PMs should be able to:
- Facilitate innovation and alignment with rapid prototyping and user research activities.
- Learn to use roadmap and backlog tools like Jira and Trello.
- Know how to use A/B testing to validate ideas.
- Master multiple approaches to agile — Scrum, Lean, Kanban — so your teams have the freedom to use what makes the most sense for each project.
- Know enough SQL to collect relevant data for roadmaps.
5. Industry Tracker
Product managers should be experts on industry trends. Also, they need to be capable of discovering product-market fit and fleshing out innovative potential. Successful PMs evaluate the market and identify opportunities for relevant and innovative features. In addition, they can answer questions like, “What go-to-market feature will position the product at just the right level of penetration? Does the roadmap align market reality with the mission, vision, and strategy for the product and business?”
6. Roadmap Master and Commander
The product roadmap is the PM’s most powerful tool for presenting product insights. It’s the key artifact for translating complex vision into clear meaning for teams and stakeholders. Using data, it tells the story the next 6-10 months. Product managers who wish to create compelling and effective roadmaps must have a solid handle on both strategy and tactics. That’s because the best roadmaps don’t just empower teams to implement the product vision — they also communicate project realities to stakeholders.
7. Positive Pessimist
Bridging the gap between the product vision and the people making it a reality means you have to deal with conflict. The most effective product managers are the ones who cheerfully anticipate pitfalls and proactively work to avoid them. Frequently monitoring progress on delivery, building strong relationships with teams and stakeholders, and creating a safe environment for open communication allows product managers to notice and address issues before they impact users.
Servant to All, Master of None
Individuals who step into the product manager role must be prepared for a tough position. Typically, they’re faced with a high level of responsibility and yet have little direct control. As a result, soft skills nearly outweigh hard skills when it comes to effectiveness as a PM. Strength of character and emotional intelligence are critical for product managers who wish to cultivate healthy and high-performing product teams. They must have a steely commitment to the vision that complements the personable, relational side of their role. In fact, they must focus equally on vision and people. With humility and a servant leader’s heart, the best product managers win both leaders and doers over to the product vision, paving the way for collaboration and innovation.