Kevin Stevens
Kevin Stevens
Product Principles - Part III: Communication is Key

Product Principles - Part III: Communication is Key

"I don’t think we can build enough supply for the marketplace if we go in that direction, but we are perfectly positioned to target small businesses."

That's the comment (paraphrased) I had no business making, in a meeting I had little business being in, that put me in a product management role.

Saddled with imposter syndrome, I turned to sharing what I did know (or at least thought I knew) and listened to others in the process.

By the way, this story is why I love early-stage startups. At their best they reward ambition, and anyone can speak up to make an impact

This third set of principles is all about communication - the most underrated skill of product management. It's also the rarest, and if you can master it the return on investment is astronomical.

Chemistry is made in the middle

Most companies have three sets of goals. Long-term goals are vague and aspirational by definition. Famous company goals include Plaid’s “make money simple” or Slack’s “make people’s work life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive”.

On the other end, we have short-term goals. Tactical decisions that come to life in sprints and standups. These are the well-defined, intentional tasks that are discussed daily. They are tangible and they are measurable.

But what about the middle? Quarterly objectives that are part strategy, part execution. What’s working? What’s not? What are the unknowns? How are we adapting?

The discussions around these questions are where chemistry is created. It’s an opportunity as a product leader to hold yourself accountable to your team for the previous quarter’s results, congratulate them on their business impact for the quarter, and share an authentic story about how the quarter fits into the larger company vision.

The inside out of storytelling

Storytelling is a skill that separates the good from the great in business. A great story resonates with customers, employees (both present and future), and investors. It starts with great internal communication.

Storytelling is taking reality and presenting it in a way that captures people by enabling them to navigate it through their perspective.

Like any memorable narrative, great teams tell stories amplified by details and data, not vague, anecdotal evidence of the evolving business. These teams tell stories about the decisions they are making, what they've learned, and how they work together genuinely.

The ability to tell engaging stories doesn't happen immediately, but instead develops over time through the chemistry I mentioned above. But, to tell a great story you need to understand the game you are playing, which leads me to my next principle...

Strategy is for everyone

Too often, product teams discuss results in a vacuum. That structure is probably a PowerPoint or Excel document (yes, I'm old school) reviewed quarterly with quantitative outcomes, but little context.

However, product is a part of a company-wide strategy. When it is communicated effectively to everyone on your team, it can bring meaning to otherwise dull metrics.

It's important, especially early on, that everyone has a baseline understanding of your industry, how it's evolving, and how you're positioning fits within the market.

By including the team in the complete direction of the company, you equip them with information to make important decisions and create buy-in across all stakeholders.

Customer personas are a great example of this principle at work. Marketing gives you team a mental model of a target customer and in-turn the product team can execute based on that demographic.

This section comes with one very important caveat, I'm not advocating for inclusion in decision-making outside of building the actual product. That's a disaster waiting to happen.

We want to give talented people the information and they need to fill in the blanks to deliver for the company in the way we know they can.

Understanding is Universal

One of the most rewarding experiences I had as a PM was getting to learn the very basics of software engineering. Things like micro-services and Git were completely foreign to me when I first started, but thanks to the generosity of our engineering team I learned just enough to not sound completely uninformed.

On the flip side, I shared the business and industry knowledge behind our company direction. CAC and kWh aren’t familiar acronyms for almost anyone, but our team needed to understand them for various reasons.

In a high-growth startup, it’s natural to become obsessed with velocity while overlooking nuance. However, shared understanding, even at a rudimentary level, has two effects:

  • More people can intelligently contribute to conversations and attack solutions from a diverse set of experiences - an exponential tool for creative problem-solving.
  • It creates empathy and trust. The more you share, the more you understand the job of the other person, and the more likely you are to relate to them at a human-level.

Next week, this four-part series wraps up with learning. The logical next step once the team gets into a habit of effective communication. We’ll discuss how to leverage learning to accelerate the velocity of delivering value through product.

Product Principles - Part II: Execution
Product Principles - Part I: Decision Making