What are the actionable insights from Mind The Product, the world’s largest product management conference?

by Nis Frome
July 22, 2018

Product management is reaching maturity and unifying around proven techniques and best practices. That’s the overarching takeaway from the recent Mind The Product, the world’s largest product management conference. According to the conference organizers, 33 countries and 37 US states were represented by attendees – a resounding turnout for an industry that hardly existing just a few years ago. Speakers shared numerous lessons throughout the one-day conference, as well as on the day before during a small leadership forum and various workshops.

You can review the conference’s schedule and speaker topics here. All of the talks will be posted as videos over the coming weeks here, although we’re tracking the slide decks below:

Below are the actionable insights from the conference and leadership forum:

Never stop learning

At the onset of the leadership forum, James Mayes, CEO of Mind The Product, talked about some of the changes his team made to the format to improve the event this year. It was a subtle but important point to make: at its core, product management is about continuous improvement and learning. Consumer preferences are changing rapidly and competitors emerge every day – the only way to stay ahead is to keep moving forward.

That though is also the paradox of product management. Many practitioners experience imposter syndrome, feeling as though they are not performing effectively or as well as their peers. Whereas that may have once been due to the ill-defined role of product management in many companies, it’s now an essential indication that you may be doing things right!

As generalists on a team of specialists, product managers don’t possess functional expertise in the traditional sense. And as drivers of continuous learning, they are always in uncharted territory. Feeling awkward is part of the job. In fact, you should be careful of feeling too comfortable.

Drop the distinction between hard skills and soft skills

Companies and recruiters have long valued “soft skills” (a.k.a. “people skills” or “EQ” for emotional intelligence) as nice-to-haves with regard to potential candidates. Such skills have historically been difficult to evaluate, impossible to measure the return on, and ultimately far less critical than “hard skills”, like engineering or financial modeling.

That’s no longer the case. With modern techniques, soft skills are now not only measurable, but have conclusively been shown to correlate with increased productivity and revenue performance. Calling them ‘soft skills’ and distinguishing them from ‘hard skills’ could be in and of itself setting your organization back. “Let’s call them real skills”, Seth Godin proclaims.

When it comes to product management, there are two core aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness and conflict management.

Think of self-awareness as lessening the gap between reality and one’s perception of reality. If you think a team member is happy and satisfied with working on your team, but they suddenly give notice to join another company, that would be a costly example of low self-awareness.

Another example would be if you routinely overestimate how much you will accomplish on a given day but always let distractions get in the way.

Conflict management is the process of aligning stakeholders with competing priorities, objectives, and opinions. Many companies operate on the ends of the ‘fight or flight’ spectrum: either they encourage unnecessarily direct communication that merely benefits the most extroverted individuals or they avoid any discomfort and difficult decisions rarely get made.

The key is to find a balance in order to de-escalate and resolve conflicts. This relates to internal teams but increasingly with customers, press, and other third parties. Many speakers noted how the field of ethics is intersecting with (and, at times, complicating) product management decisions around privacy, inherent biases, and habit-formation.

All of these trends are further indications that product management is maturing, and must engage in consequential discussions about the impact of decisions.

While product managers may finally have the resources and insights to achieve success, the same can’t necessarily be said for product leadership. It’s a new but critical frontier for the discipline. Effective product leaders can accelerate learning for the next generation of product managers and ensure that the product management function has a strategic foundation within their organizations.

Product leadership will take the industry to the next level

Product leadership doesn’t yet offer widely used frameworks or best practices, but it has a pretty rough outline of ‘things not to do,’ such as:

  • Don’t assume what worked elsewhere will work again: The dynamics of product leadership involve working heavily with executives that can’t necessarily be influenced. Strategies and tactics that worked well in the past may fail miserably, so bias toward listening, learning, and adapting.
  • Don’t start fresh and try to make an immediate impact: Somewhat counterintuitively although along the same lines as the first point, product leaders should be careful not to bring too much momentum with them. Of course, they are brought in ultimately to solve a problem and impact key metrics. But they won’t be able to do that if they don’t build rapport with stakeholders by understanding existing expectations, quarrels, and challenges. Trying to change the culture overnight could have drastic consequences.
  • Don’t stay far from the product portfolio: While product leadership is fundamentally about empowering and supporting a team of product managers, it’s important to become a power user for your own products. Otherwise, too much context is missing from conversations. It is however a delicate balance between becoming a passionate power user and not interfering with decisions that product managers must make themselves.

Expect that, over the next few years, case studies, best practices, and frameworks will emerge for product leaders just like they have for product managers.

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Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.