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Developing Soft Skills in Product Managers

Much is made of and written about the “hard skills” that a Product Manager must possess. She should be analytical, critical, methodical, detail oriented and master of a vast array of models, methodologies and techniques. But I find very little emphasis in the popular writings or training in our field about the “soft skills” that are essential to doing the job at hand.

Part of the reason for this is due to the inherent difficulties and challenges with teaching soft skills in a classroom setting. You can spend half a day or less teaching a complete novice the techniques needed to create Process Flows. Shortly thereafter, you can administer a test on the material. Depending upon their score on the test, you can with quite a high degree of confidence state that the student is ready to start creating Process Flows.   And you would be right.

Try doing the same to teach a person how to run a meeting. Take the same novices who you were able to quickly bring up to speed on Process Flows and give them a half a day training session on running a meeting. Now, turn one of them loose on a room full of opinionated and contentious subject matter experts and see what happens. Even if you have an extremely skilled student, you will in all likelihood, end the meeting with a room full of angry, opinionated and contentious subject matter experts going at each other’s throats, or worse yet, your young protégé. The simple truth is that it takes years of experience and practice before the “soft skills” can be mastered.

Yet, ironically, it is these non-technical skills that are critical to the success of a Product Manager. No matter how good their hard skills or technical competence may be, they cannot do their jobs without soft skills. There are two fundamental soft skills that a Product Manager must possess in order to be successful.

  1. Elicitation Skills
  2. Facilitation Skills

Let me first define these terms so that we are working from a common vocabulary.

Elicitation refers to the ability of the Product Manager to extract or gather information from stakeholders and users. It is how we understand what needs to be built, why it is being built, what the important features are and when it should be delivered. There are many Elicitation skills that do not need human interaction. For example, questionnaires, document review, application walk through, UI review and a whole host of other techniques can be used by the Product Manager working alone without the need for one on one interaction with stakeholders. However, it is practically impossible to use ONLY these techniques and completely bypass ever interacting in person with one or more stakeholders. The ability of a Product Manager to conduct face to face interviews will eventually break or make him.

Facilitation refers to the ability of a Product Manager to enable teams to resolve disagreements and arrive at optimal decisions that benefit everyone involved. This is the most difficult skill to develop and even the most experienced practitioners can struggle with an unruly or deeply divided team. As hard as it may be to do, the ability to resolve conflicts within teams is one of the key determinants of success. I have seen more projects fail or struggle due to unresolved conflicts and dysfunctional behavior than a lack of ability within the team.

From my experience, the best way to develop soft skills is with a combination of the methods below.

  1. Classroom Training
  2. Assisted Sessions
  3. Role Playing
  4. Practice

It may seem strange that I put Classroom Training at the top of the list shortly after seeming to imply that they are almost useless earlier in the article. Let me clarify. Unlike the hard skills, soft skills that are learned in a classroom setting take a lot of practice before they can be executed competently. Among the more useful things that anyone can learn in a classroom setting are what NOT to do in the area of soft skills. For example, try and involve everyone in a discussion instead of just focusing on a few people. With a little bit of practice, this can easily be incorporated into any person’s skill set. They are also extremely useful to give people a set of best practices and techniques that they can start incorporating into their interactions with stakeholders. A lot of things taught around soft skills seem obvious or common sense. However, to not teach them because they do not contain any earth shattering revelations is a mistake. Just because something is obvious, does not mean that we will do it. We all know that eating the donut sitting on the kitchen counter is a bad idea but we do it anyway. Classroom training reinforces in us the things we ought to be doing (or not doing) and gives us a frame of reference around which to build our skillset.

Assisted sessions are simply interactions that the inexperienced Product Manager does in the presence of or with the guidance of a more experienced practitioner. The senior practitioner provides a safety net to the novice who can step in if things start to get out of hand. This kind of mentoring is done informally almost everywhere. It becomes a lot more effective if your organization does it formally and systematically. A good assisted program will have the following clearly defined phases for each session.

  1. Preparation. The trainer and the student go over the session or meeting details and define each other’s roles and responsibilities. The most important thing to be decided is when the trainer will step in and in what circumstances the student can call on the trainer to step in. The trainer can also give the student a list of things to focus on and be careful about in the upcoming session.
  2. Execution. The trainer should make a point of attending the session and carefully observing the student in action. They should also step in whenever needed or as agreed during the preparation leading into the meeting.
  3. Debrief. Once the session is completed, there should be a formal debriefing by the trainer. The student should be given objective feedback of the things they did well, things they missed and areas for improvement. It is important to not overwhelm the student with a deluge of information during these feedback sessions, especially in the things that were missed or need improvement. It is best to focus on the most egregious mistakes that were made and tackle just a couple of areas for improvement at a time.

If these kinds of guided sessions are done systematically, the time needed to develop the soft skills can be reduced dramatically. Soft skills can be learned and taught. We just need to have the necessary patience and structure in place to enable learning to take place.

Role playing is another very useful tool where the student is able to work on specific skills in a structured learning environment. Role playing does not have to revolve around made up scenarios. One of the easiest ways of doing it is to run your internal meetings to the same standards as your customer facing interactions. We tend to be a lot more informal and loose in our internal meetings. These are actually excellent teaching opportunities for student practitioners in a low stakes environment.

And finally, practice. Practice, practice, practice. Then practice some more. There is no substitute for experience in the long run. No matter how many role playing sessions we have participated in around handling irate stakeholders, there is no substitute for the real thing. There is a huge difference between a role playing session where my partner pretended to be really angry and actually confronting a person who is out of control. The simple reality is we all have to go through bad meetings before we get better. The key aspect to getting better is introspection and debriefing. Make it a point to go over your meetings critically with an eye on the soft skills. See what you could have done better or differently. And try to get a little better the next time around.

Soft skills training should be approached systematically by your organization. They can be taught and learned. The most important thing to understand about them is that they take time. And patience. But the rewards are huge. Instead of having a team of Product Managers who are good at their job, you can have a team of great ones. Which would you rather have?

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