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Downtime Projects: Product Management Skills to Improve

By Nick Epson on April 22, 2020

If you are a PM who has been furloughed or otherwise found some time off during this COVID-19 crisis, there are some product management skills you can invest in improving while the world undergoes this current crisis. Most of us are not quite as busy as we were before this thing evolved into a full-blown disaster, so you might as well use this time to your advantage.

By taking stock of your current skills and solidifying direction for improvement, you should come out of this as a better leader and just as importantly, a better product manager. Like any other overhaul-esque project, you need to start with identification, i.e. seeing where you’re at. From here, you can start working on developing a kind of blueprint of your skill sets then figure out areas you need to develop or improve.

Take stock of your own product management skills

Start by making a checklist of your product management skills to see where you’re at. Sure, it sounds cliché as every organizational leadership company suggests list-making (among other tricks) but it’s effective, nonetheless.

Physically write down (or type out) where you perform well as well as list what you’re not so good at. In developing this sort of blueprint, areas of weakness should stand out among strengths. Though it can be uncomfortable to come to terms with faults, ignoring them can lead to pitfalls. 

A product manager not performing to snuff can direct teams toward failure. It’s like an architect not taking accountability after engineers and laborers follow through with a bad print. As the designer and planner, it’s important that you organize, communicate and use digital tools at your disposal to your advantage so you don’t set others up for defeat.

We’ve covered this topic in the past, so start here and compare yourself to what we feel are the bedrock product management skills. Use this list to take stock of where you’re at by cross-analyzing your existing hard and soft skills against our list of core competencies. After identifying problem areas, you’ll be equipped to start identifying goals for self-improvement. 

(In many respects, the process is much like the Design Sprint we use to begin every project.)

Things to avoid when brushing up your skills

Some tend to identify superficial improvements that don’t actually get you anywhere. It is possible to hone in on easy goals that are mostly frivolous. Take this stock photo for example:

This man looks like he has it all together. His beverages are carefully laid out, his drawing pad looks ready, and his plant appears to be healthy. Being overly organized is great, but how helpful is the guy’s setup, really? 

The black coffee with a mixing spoon and no sugar or creamer in plain sight means he’s too focused on the presentation of the beverage. He’s sitting outside but yet he brought along what appears to be an office plant which feels like a waste of time. Worst of all, it looks like his MacBook is having some issues he didn’t plan on dealing with at this moment.

At a glance, he looks as though he has it together but in reality, he’s probably about 15 minutes out from having a mini breakdown. 

Sometimes, we spend too much time thinking about presentation or putting effort into actions that have no real value like our friend in the example above. Some easy goals are ok, like decorating and tidying your space, but those that only serve to enhance our “presentation” – whether it’s our behavior, a specific skill, our organization, etc. – the goal becomes pointless. You need to dig deep and put the effort into improving your product management skills; there’s more to it than hydrating enough and nailing the ‘right’ feng shui with office decorations.

Improving product management skills

Feel free to get some plants and drink your coffee like you’re in a restaurant but work on these skills as well.

Better how you communicate with colleagues and clients. Over time, you will develop a tendency to communicate with a certain style with both internal team members and clients. We develop preconceived moods based on our history of interactions with others that define how we feel about a conversation even before the conversation has begun. These can lead down a road where we’re consistently pleasant or on the converse, we can become overly brief, condescending, or simply come across as irritated.

Ask another colleague to review some of your messages, especially when you’ve identified that your communication comes across as irritable or crass. If you’re regularly coming off as annoyed, address and rectify this style as soon as possible. Look at messages where you may not communicate as well as possible and think about ways to deliver messages without unpleasant undertones. This will prevent team dynamics from deteriorating by helping you stay in the graces with other individuals.

Organize your projects in your project management software and look at new PM tools. Now is great time to do some maintenance in your project management software. We use Asana which is great when everyone consistently takes care to make sure the software is being used properly. Even with the best intentions, this flavor of project management tools is notorious for becoming cluttered with useless data because of tasks that don’t get closed out, trailing thoughts or workflows that go nowhere, and other obscure bits of information.

There are a ton of great tools on the market to explore, especially if you’re not happy with the one you’re using. You could consider going to Monday which has become an extremely-popular, freemium tool over the last couple of years. Color-coded tasks are easily manipulated in the dashboard which can be tailored for each user’s role. The ability to alter (i.e. add and subtract) columns for each task gives users a substantial amount of control.

Development-heavy teams could consider using Github as well, seeing as this is the de facto standard for software development. Github can be configured to use the included issue tracking tool that allows collaborators to plugin information relevant to triaging and ultimately resolving problems.

Come up with new ways to manage workflow. The mentality that “the way we’ve been doing it has worked for years” is the bane of effective change. At some point, possibly in the very near future, you may need to flex your product manager muscles and make some changes to software you’re using or perhaps, how you use certain tools.

Sometimes it isn’t about changing tools, especially if you’re not taking advantage of the tools at your disposal in the first place. Whether or not you’re happy with your existing tools, it might be a good idea to take on a transformative new method of workflow management like Kanban.

Kanban methods transcend individual platforms that evolved from a tailored system used in lean manufacturing by Toyota in Japan. The primary principle is mitigating change to transition to more effective systems – for product managers and developers, this could mean both restructurings how team members tackle projects as well as how workflow management systems are used to notate progress or track issues.

Kanban allows you to focus on incremental change while focusing on current methods. In this sense, it aligns with most modern change management practices by gradually shifting towards more effective means of product, whether that’s building a machine or software.

Finally, If you’re in good shape, don’t forget that there are little things you can do to ensure that you hit the ground running once the world gets through this current dilemma.

Learn how PMs at Blue Label Labs successfully manage our projects

Because every team member at Blue Label Labs is important, it’s critical that product management skills are on point to keep teams working as optimally as possible. As the liaison between everyone on a project, we demand that those in these roles carry themselves with a dedication to self-improvement.

Reach out to us at Blue Label Labs to learn more about how we build sophisticated software with a dedicated product manager at the helm of every project.

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