Product Monday: Avoiding a bumpy start

“A great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer and the speech of a diplomat” – unknown

One of the mistakes I see new product people do is trying to make an impact as soon as they land a new job. Unfortunately because of this rush they end up making more mistakes and set a bumpy road for the job they just took.

We are all eager to voice our opinions and make an impact, but the thing is when you land a new job and you have to manage by influence, you start with negative social credit score with everyone, as you are new to the group, you have no authority on anyone, you are consuming more of their time than adding value, and some will even see you as a threat, you are the new person they hired to tell us what to do.

Yes, you will see many things that you think the team is doing wrong, but you shouldn’t go and tell them they are wrong without deeply understanding the organism and what makes it tick.

That’s why before you start making suggestions or change things, you need to know who has influence on your work, and foster the relationship with them while uncovering their desires and incentives. Only after doing this, you will have a clearer picture of where to start and where you can add value.

One thing I did when I landed my current job was talking to most people on my team either officially by having a meeting or unofficially by having coffee. In those meetings I come prepared with a list of questions. After exchanging pleasantries I would start asking

  • When did you join the company/team? The older someone is the more experienced they are and the more they might feel entitled to make certain decisions.
  • What are you currently working on? Dig deeper to understand more but not so deep to waste the whole meeting. Engineers have a tendency to keep going deeper in details. Know when to stop them.
  • What are your priorities?
  • What does success look like to you? Keep it that open to see which success they ask you about, many will say do you mean my success or the team success? Others will just go with something. Always say both, this will expose what motivates them.
  • What are your challenges? Or what might lead to not achieving the success you just mentioned? The answer to this question will reveal areas they are struggling with where you can add value.
  • Don’t ask “What do you expect from me?” except to your manager. The reason I would be careful to ask this question to peers especially if they are engineering leads is it might set a relationship similar to what they have with their directs, which you don’t want. If you want to ask something along this line you can ask “How can I help?”. Never give an answer on the spot. Always say “I will see what I can do”.

The above exercise is mandatory with your manager, the engineering leads you work with, and the most senior engineers on the team. It is optional with everyone else.

Once you do this, you need to create a map of priorities, people, and motives. This map is more conceptual than physical. You essentially want to know what are the top priorities, who has influence on their success, and who might be a blocker to achieving this and why?

This process typically take few weeks to maybe months. But without doing this it becomes dangerous to try changing things with incomplete information. Remember that information is leverage, the better (not more) information you have, the higher your leverage to getting things done.

In short, shut up and listen. Good luck!