People Skills for Product Owners vs. Product Managers
Teach Product Owners people skills? This will be easy, I thought; and then after a frustrating few hours I realized that they were tackling the issue from a different perspective. I know that most Product Managers and Product Owners work closely with engineers and development groups. As part of that work, they need to be able to influence these teams. Then why do their approaches towards their teams need to be different?
It comes from how closely Product Owners work with their teams.
Since they see (in person or virtually) each other all the time, the relationship is more a relationship of equals solving problems. In contrast, a Product Manager will interact with development teams as part of their job, but not exclusively.
They see development teams as another stakeholder in the process of bringing value to customers. Their conversations can be full of product and market vision. They will describe the details of how customers interact with the product. It is mainly a conversation of influence.
Now watch the Product Owner with the development team. It’s close – almost intimate.
Each piece of the product puzzle has to be teased apart carefully and then just as delicately put back together in a way that the team can make progress. While the vision and customer focus are not far away, it is on hold while this particular knot of a problem is teased apart. The Epic is disassembled, the User Stories picked apart and then put back together.
This isn’t primarily a conversation of influence. It’s much more like an intense conversation of reaching a new understanding of the problem.
That’s why going back to basics is so important.
Basics such as: using active listening, asking open-ended questions, checking, and then double checking understanding, avoiding assumptions and finally creating clear instructions whether written, shown graphically or spoken.
As an aside I’m always surprised by how many people I train who have never heard of active listening or whose default style is asking closed ended questions. Worse still are the people who jump to conclusions.
How to Improve People Skills for Product Owners
How will you know that it’s basic communication mechanics that are getting in the way of working effectively with your team?
Try this. The next time you have issues and your point isn’t being understood, hit the pause button and start the conversation over again using these techniques:
- Practice active listening: Get curious and simply listen to what someone is saying to you. Repeat some of it back to them. If you want to practice this deliberately, start your sentence with “What I hear you saying is…” If you missed the point, they’ll clarify it for you.Keep at it. It’s much easier and ultimately faster to make sure that you really understand the problem than try and resolve the wrong one.
- Ask open ended questions: These are known as “open-ended” because the answer isn’t implicit in the question. Here’s a close-ended question: “Do you like option A or option B?” There are only two real answers to this question unless the person is fearless enough to say: “Neither. It should be C or we still need to talk about other options altogether.”Try this type of open-ended question instead: “What kind of solutions are possible to this problem?” Here there are many responses, and you are ensuring that the responses lead where the responder wants it to go instead of where you’ve assumed that the answer lies.
- Giving clear instructions: This is much harder than it sounds. It means taking a step back to give context to the request. Keep practicing; keep taking that deep breath and psychologically pulling out of the problem as you frame the request.Another suggestion is to keep your request short and then ask for an active listening response back. It sounds strange at first, but if you explain that you are working to make sure that your requests are clear and ensuring everyone has the information they need to work through a particular task, then people will work with you. They’ll love to help.
Next time you find yourself degenerating into communication frustration, you may want to record parts of your conversations. Then listen to what you are actually saying. Did you use Active Listening? Did you ask open-ended questions to make sure that you learned all the ins and outs of a situation? Did your request get through clearly and completely?
Let me know how it goes for you as you develop your communication skills as a Product Owner.
Download the first two chapters of Agile Excellence for Product Managers the book that inspired our new Agile course here:
Meet the Author
Pamela Schure is the Director of Products and Services with the 280 group. She is a 25 year Product Management, Product Marketing and international business veteran with companies such as Apple, Sun Microsystems and Adaptec.
Director of Products and Services