Ownership: Crucial Product Management Skill 3/20
Think like an owner, act like an owner
This post is part of a series of short articles about the 20 most crucial product management skills.
What it means
Ownership for product managers means caring deeply about all aspects of the product and user experience as well as about the team and its functioning and well-being. As an owner, nothing is ever “out of scope”. Ownership means doing whatever is necessary to move the team along and deliver value to customers — bringing the proverbial donuts.
Why it is an important skill
Product management is a role that wouldn’t exist without a product development team. All but the simplest products are best developed in teams. Product management work is not about “hard” deliverables (like designs and code), but rather about the process of discovering and delivering solutions to customers’ problems. As such, one important aspect of the product manager’s role is spotting whatever is in the way of delivering value and ensuring that obstacle gets removed — by finding the right person who can fix the issue or by simply fixing it. These issues could be flaws in the product itself, process issues, blockers, conflicts with stakeholders, etc.
What great looks like
Product managers who are great at exhibiting ownership spot problems with the product or the process wherever they occur and do whatever it takes to fix critical issues. No task is below them, including “grunt work” — they help with customer support, scheduling meetings and taking notes, or getting snacks for the team (to the extent the team is working in person).
On the other hand, product managers who are great owners also understand leverage — that they shouldn’t be the one solving every problem, and that sometimes a problem is best solved by bringing it to the attention of whoever can solve it best or quickest. They are also great at prioritizing and consciously deciding which fires to let burn and which ones to extinguish, in order to not have the team just running around like a headless chicken chasing after each new issue.
How to improve your ownership skills
Ownership is really a combination of the right mindset and the skills to put that mindset to use. The ownership mindset requires understanding all product-related problems as your problems. This is best done by practicing empathy with the customer and your team members — feeling that any problem that customers or team members experience becomes your problem. The mindset can be practiced by actively listening to these stakeholders and looking for any issues with the status quo (of the product, of product development processes, etc.). It’s also beneficial to frame problems as opportunities, not as negative reflections of your past work. If someone has a problem with a flow in your product that you were involved in building, it’s often a natural tendency to dismiss this criticism. As an owner, however, you should see this as an opportunity to become even better instead of taking the criticism personally.
The second half of ownership is then doing something about the problems you identified. This has to do with practicing organization, prioritization, and delegation. You need to be organized to make sure problems are captured in a single place (e.g., in the form of a to do list) and that you follow up on these problems (by solving them yourself, by getting someone else to solve them, or by deprioritizing them). Prioritization is a critical product management skill in and of itself and involves understanding the relevance of a given problem (e.g., its reach and impact but also the effort that would be required to solve it). Lastly, delegation is a skill which involves both understanding when to solve something yourself and when to ask someone else to solve a problem, and also the art of how to ask someone else to solve the problem (especially as a product manager without formal authority). These skills are all partly covered by other critical product management skills that will be following in this series.
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