I truly love building products. But I work from home. This shift from a “real” office to my home office presented some challenges for me. Some aspects of product design are harder in isolation; for other areas, my life became a tad easier. If you have aspirations of being a great product manager (or building anything in life to help others), here are some necessary traits that will help you excel in designing, building, and launching products from your home office. Working from home makes everything a bit different, especially within the realm of building products. If you are building products with other people (which I presume is the case) you will likely want to demonstrate certain behaviors to earn their buy-in, trust, and assistance. If you strive to build not just parts of products but groups of products (or entire businesses build on great products) you will want to dig even deeper. The goal of an ambitious product manager is to make significant, lasting changes in structure, culture or focus of the organization through the products that he or she builds. Through your efforts you can generate global impact and organizational success. But how does this work when your design, engineering, and sales teams sit far away?
More importantly, how do you get customer or market feedback when Working From Home? How can you demonstrate value and deliver long-term strategic initiatives or valuable investments when you work alone? This article is intended for the product manager that wants to add value – in ways big and small – when Working From Home. While this guidance is aimed at helping you do better product manager work (for your own ideas or company) it is important that your product northstar and core values will drive you forward regardless of your work environment.
1. Be a lifelong learner
Regardless of your office or location, be prepared to learn. Read. Consume content. Reflect. The best product managers ask questions, probe assumptions, and seek to understand the why behind behavior. Thomas Huxley, a fierce defender of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution surmised: “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Great product managers are always learning, testing parameters, and pushing the boundaries of their knowledge. When you are working from home and not interacting with people on a daily basis this is particularly important because you will need to probe things and ask questions and find answers by yourself. This takes an extra level of resourcefulness and effort.
2. Show a bias towards action
It is harder to devise and implement a workable answer than to identify a problem. But this is precisely what the most effective product builders do: they devise and craft solutions to the problems they experience. Great product managers are always building, re-designing, and analyzing content, user-flows, and frameworks. A bias towards action moves products forward, generates new concepts, and more readily solves problems. A strong product manager takes into account competing priorities and objectives, is flexible, and makes decisions on which goals should be prioritized. When working from home (with less face time or potentially social camaraderie that you would develop in an office setting) a product manager must know how to independently build an end to end business model and product proposal that leads to approval from relevant stakeholders and partners. Obtaining buy-in without personal chemistry is challenging. Ideally you can schedule 1:1s to get feedback and organize mock-ups or other designs that inspire people and help them see your vision.
3. Communicate with humans
Hans Hofmann, the abstract expressionist painter, argued that “the ability to simplify means the elimination of the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Think about all of the different ways one can communicate, and how often (and why) each method is used: meetings, emails, video-conference, chat, SMS, presentations, apps, etc. Great product managers know how to use these various mediums to engage with different stakeholders and to speak the language of those present. This is especially true in the Work From Home environment. The words, narratives, and details that excite, incent, and empower folks across sales, marketing, engineering, and operations are usually different. Great product managers are cognizant of this reality and alter their communications accordingly. This is particularly true when working from home – because you might need to communicate with people less frequently or remotely. As you may have less time to convey your critical product ideas, getting the communication medium right is even more important.
4. Generate new ideas as often as possible
Creative thinking is really hard. Creating content is hard. It is far easier to watch a show online than it is to brainstorm ideas. If great ideas were easy to come by many more people would have them. Thomas Edison, one of the great designers and thinkers in human history, famously noted that he had “never failed, but just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Great product managers are constantly coming up with ideas — to change the status quo, to improve existing tools, to invent a new way of doing things. The home office is actually a great place to brainstorm. What products do you want to see in the world? What do you need? Where are the gaps in the market? Can you build solutions to these problems? These types of questions are fun to ponder. You can challenge yourself to come up with new ideas each day.
5. Listen to feedback
Take time everyday to speak with users — hear their stories, understand their needs, and discover their aspirations. Ask: why do you need this product? If they don’t, it is likely a good time to re-evaluate what you are working on. Only by really listening can you build what people want and understand the context in which they operate. Listening is a great way to do proper discovery. Ultimately that is the purpose of a product manager. Doing product discovery from home is different than doing it in person; you won’t necessarily be able to feel what the end user thinks. This will make asking probing questions even more important.
A great product manager – like an artist or musician – creates things. Some of these things are relationships, some are products, or movements. A product manager must strive to establish relationships with both internal and external leaders and to set a vision that augments the needs of users, or clients, and provides a better way of doing things. Unsuccessful product managers make small or meaningless contributions. Strong product managers build things that have an impact at scale. Certainly the home environment presents some challenges to doing the work of a product manager. But it also represents some new opportunities. In the end of the day your environment will matter less than your mindset and the clarity of your thinking. You can be a lifelong learner, show a bias towards action, communicate thoughtfully, generate new ideas, and listen to feedback wherever you are in the world. Being a great home product manager requires embracing these behaviors day in and day out without losing sight of your core values and northstar.