Effective Project Management Starts With Asking Why

It’s no secret that product managers have a very difficult job. They are in a position of having to lead, but frequently must do so through influence instead of authority.

To navigate the difficulty of their management position while being effective leaders, product managers are forced to become masters of why. They have to ask why (a lot) and have to be able to clearly explain the “whys” behind their decision. Why is part of a larger skill product managers master: communication. It’s the key to creating synergy with the engineering team.

Building Trust With Transparency

To successfully lead through influence, product managers must build trust with the engineering team as well as team leaders throughout the organization. Trust is important in any role, but is particularly important for product managers, because even though they aren’t direct managers, they’re asking engineers to do specific tasks. Engineers not only spend their time and energy on these tasks, but become emotionally invested in the work they’re doing. They need to be able to trust that these requests are for good reason.

The best and quickest way for product managers to build trust is by being transparent in their decisions. One of the reasons transparency is so important is that most engineers, by nature, are extremely logical people. Because of this, engineers want to see the logic that led to a product manager’s decision clearly laid out, and whenever possible, the quantifiable outcome of the decision being made. The better product managers get at engaging with engineers in an open and logical way, the more synergy they’ll create, and the more successful they’ll be in executing their role.

Sometimes, there isn’t going to be strong logic that points to a certain decision. In this case, product managers are left to rely on their intuition. In my experience, “intuition” isn’t a word engineers are very comfortable with until they come to trust the person relying on it. Ideally, there is enough trust built up between product managers and the engineering team that when a product manager explains their decision is based on intuition, everyone is comfortable with it. That being said, it’s important to point out that it’s extremely dangerous for product managers to make a call based on intuition alone and masquerade the decision as if they’ve done a bunch of research, and vice versa.

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Create Harmony Through Conflict Management

Conflict is unavoidable in life, including the workplace. Office conflict can be constructive or destructive. In most cases, however, I think it’s fair to say that a reduction in internal conflict fosters more synergy between individuals and teams. Product managers are responsible for anticipating and addressing conflict before it arises. Ideally, teams are able to come to an agreement about the best strategy prior to conflict, but that’s not always going to be possible 100 percent of the time. In these instances, it’s the product manager’s job to lead the team through the process of hashing out disagreements in a constructive manner to move the product forward. The best product managers are able to successfully manage conflict because they’re skilled at working with a lot of personality types. The old adage “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” holds true for both product managers and engineers.

In addition to strong communication, product managers and engineers need to have a proper understanding of where everyone stands. Product managers ultimately hold more weight — at least when it comes to a value proposition, feature prioritization, customer needs, etc. This is why it’s necessary for engineers to understand that even if they disagree, they should give product managers the benefit of the doubt, keeping in mind that the product manager has more context about how the feature is going to be used, and defer to that. However, this doesn’t give product managers permission to make executive decisions without taking the time to help the engineering team understand why and how they came to the decisions they made.

Empathy is a strong factor. The more trust product managers can build, the more cohesive and synergistic the team will be. Shadowing can serve as a useful practice to help both product managers and engineers develop empathy for each other. Inviting engineers to hear and observe the product manager having to pick the lesser of the two evils will help engineers understand product managers’ jobs better. On the flip side, inviting product managers to shadow engineers will help them understand the tradeoffs between different implementations, and how complexity and uncertainty play a role in determining the best path for completing a feature. This mutual empathy will build trust, and in turn, foster synergy within the team.

Product managers have to understand how to manage all of the different teams in the organization to achieve the desired outcome. This requires the mastery of communication, a lot of empathy and a deep understanding of the organization (from the people within the organization, to the product or service, to the customer). But what’s ultimately going to push the team forward to new heights? The creation of internal synergy — and it all starts with product managers.

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Written by:
Michael is the CTO at Apptentive. He loves sailing, skiing, Seattle, and he's a father to identical twins
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