Communication and the Product Mindset, both things that might seem simple in concept but really hard to master – join us as we talk through whether over-communication is even a thing as a Product Manager, and what we see as the main difference between having a project mindset and a product mindset.
[00:00:00] Tammy Bulson: Welcome to Product Outsiders. We’re not product managers, but we’re close.
In a world awash in MBAs in fancy suits, we’re the people standing on the outside, our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some ish done. We’re not product managers in the way you might think, but we’re passionate about solving real problems for real people in ways that create real value. So I guess that makes us product managers? Whatever you call us, we’re passionate about building great collaborative teams that make great products together.
Today’s episode is all about communication and the product mindset— both things that might seem simple in concept, but are really hard to master.
I’m Tammy Bulson. I am an agile coach by day and have never been a product manager, but I’m very interested in product management. And with me are Will Sansbury and Amber Hansford. Will, you want to introduce yourself?
[00:01:17] Will Sansbury: Thanks, Tammy. Yeah. Hi, I’m Will Sansbury. I’ve been in product for awhile, sort of on the sidelines in UX and engineering and other disciplines. Right now, currently between jobs, but looking for the next big thing.
[00:01:29] Tammy Bulson: Awesome. Thanks, Will. And Amber?
[00:01:31] Amber Hansford: I’m Amber Hansford. I’m currently a UX manager, former product manager, and then former front-end developer. I’ve kind of come at most of my career decisions sideways.
[00:01:45] Tammy Bulson: Nice. Well today, we’re going to talk about a couple of topics, but we want to start with communication— something that sounds like it should be so simple, but yet it is not. So Amber and Will either one of you, any tips or tricks to help product people really knock communication out of the park, and is over-communication a thing?
[00:02:08] Will Sansbury: Is over communication a thing? In the world of product management? Absolutely not. I’ve told people that have worked on my teams for a long time when, when you’re, when you’re absolutely sick of saying it, and you’re convinced that the other people are sick of hearing it, then you’re probably about halfway there. I think it’s so important that we continued—as product people, we’ve got to be the ones that are pointing us back repeatedly to what it is we’re doing and why. I don’t think that can be said too many times. I think you just, you have to always be that rudder kind of helping the ship to stay grounded. That’s a terrible metaphor, to ground the ship, but you know what I’m saying.
[00:02:42] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s, there’s some scientific research— and I can’t remember right now, maybe, maybe one of you remember—but you have to hear something how many times before you actually understand it?
[00:02:55] Will Sansbury: I don’t know if it’s scientific, but my wife would tell you that I have to hear it probably 50 times.
[00:03:00] Amber Hansford: Yeah. I was thinking triple digits for some folks and some things, though I have a teenager, so that always skews it.
[00:03:08] Tammy Bulson: Amber, what do you think? Any tips or tricks to help or any thoughts on over-communication? Do you agree with Will?
[00:03:16] Amber Hansford: I would say, especially in the era that we’re living in, in COVID, over-communication is never, ever a bad thing. Not just direct verbal communication, but also in writing, whether it be a text message or a doc that you’re putting together or an email, just constantly reiterating those things, to help develop that into, you know, muscle memory. That you’re always explaining things, always understanding the fact that product management at its core has always been, in my opinion, being a facilitator and being a negotiator. Everything else is bonus. But if you can hit those two out of the park, you’ll be a really great product manager. But that also does come into a lot of over-communication, making sure you’re hitting those, not just what’s, but why we’re doing something.
And then you kind of lean on the other folks within your product team to help you figure out the how.
[00:04:17] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, you know in the, in the Agile world, we talk all the time about information radiators. So keeping things posted visually so that we can all see. So Amber, when you were talking, it made me think of seems like one of the easiest ways to keep us all on the same page, besides communicating verbally or in written communication, is those things that we can look at. Those information radiators that help us see things and get things out in front of us, to help to communicate an idea.
[00:04:46] Will Sansbury: Tammy, I think you hit on something really important because how many product managers have you talked to who have said, and rightly so, “I can’t be expected to communicate that much. I have so many other things I have to do. There’s just not enough hours in the day.” And inevitably, when I run into those product folks, they completely don’t understand the value of setting up systems for communication.
They’re treating every request for information as a one-off, and they’re not setting up some systems so that people can kind of self-serve that information. So I think that kind of ties with that information radiator idea, right? Really great product managers, you don’t have to ask them for the roadmap because you know where to go get it. It just is already proactively published out there. And that ends up saving them a lot of time that they can focus on other things while still being really great, effective communicators.
[00:05:36] Amber Hansford: I’d have to agree with that. My child will tell you point-blank, I hate repeating myself. I despise it beyond all belief, but for seven years as product, I constantly had to, you know, repeat myself because it was a different audience. But I was still trying to get to the why are we building this? Why is this important for our customers? Anything like that. So yeah, getting that information radiator, via a roadmap that you’ve, you know, shared out to the team, or even sometimes just a JIRA board. You always have those same rhythms, so instead of feeling like you’re starting from scratch each time, you can, you know, just kind of fill in the blanks. This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it. Here’s your template, you know, rock and roll.
And it’s not just then for the product manager to be able to, for lack of a better phrase, Madlibs it, but also then the rest of your team also gets used to that cadence as well. And it becomes muscle memory to pick out the important bits and move forward.
[00:06:44] Tammy Bulson: And, and don’t you think sometimes it’s, it’s probably hard because a product manager, they know their product, and they know the information so well themselves, that sometimes it’s really hard because you know it in your head, it’s hard to, to understand where everybody else is at. And that they’re not, they don’t have that same level of understanding that you have.
[00:07:05] Amber Hansford: The curse of knowledge is a horrible thing in so many different ways. I know this inside and out, but your lead developer may not have ever seen that before and never understood it. Your UXer then has to go out and, you know, go do some research on something that they’ve not understood or seen it.
[00:07:29] Will Sansbury: I think that’s, that’s a really interesting topic, right? In, in the world of music we talk about it as themes and variations. The product manager has got to know what they’re talking about to the level that they can very quickly articulate it for a custom audience.
One of the places where I see a lot of product managers go wrong is they think that the roadmap is a single thing. You do it once you, publish it, and you’re done. And the reality is that if you communicate at the same grain with your CEO as you do with your engineering team as you do with your customers, then nobody’s getting the right level of information.
So you’ve got to put on that empathy lens. Look at it through the perspective of each of those folks, and find a way to communicate what each of them needs. I have been really interested in— and I’m curious to see what you all think— I’ve been looking at a lot of those product management tools that are out there, and I think we’re at an interesting moment in time where those tools are kind of growing up right before our eyes. They’ve gone from being kind of kitschy little Gantt chart, drag-and-drop roadmap builders, to really powerful tools for communicating. And communicating the right things to the right people. Do we talk about products on our podcast?
[00:08:39] Amber Hansford: Sure.
[00:08:40] Will Sansbury: Yeah. Okay. We’ll give some free advertising. Aha! And I think you actually have to say AHA!, because there’s an exclamation point. Goofy name, but they do a really great job of helping to kind of take all of the things that matter about where the product is going, the vision, the purpose, how everyone should be pointed and rowing together, and makes it very, very accessible for lots of different constituencies. And I think we’re going to see tools get more and more sophisticated so that, that, that superpower that some product managers have of being able to spend the story of their product for the, at the right level, for the right audience, you know, at the drop of the hat, the computer will do that for us eventually. We’re going to get to the place where the tools help us do that. And so every product manager can be a superhero.
[00:09:26] Amber Hansford: A little piece of my heart belongs to Aha!. The first time I saw it actually link a product vision statement all the way down to a story within an initiative in my JIRA board. And I was like, okay, yeah, I’m done. I’m here. This is mine. I love you.
[00:09:46] Tammy Bulson: Nice. So if we kind of close out our thoughts for a moment on communication, and we think about just the product mindset, a lot of companies don’t automatically have a product mindset. So how do you transform a project mindset to a product mindset, and should companies even strive to do that? What do you guys think?
[00:10:13] Will Sansbury: Do I need to give some definitions before we really— I think there’s some big picture commonality between product mindset, project mindset, but every company practices differently. Right? So here’s what I think we’re talking about. This project mindset is when you’ve got a group of people that you assemble, because you want to do a thing in one, in a product, and they’re going to work together on that thing for as long as it takes to get that project done.
If you’re lucky, because probably half of them will get pulled off to other higher priority projects long before. The thing you’re building ever sees the light of day and the allegiance or the, the sense of, of ownership that the team feels is for the project that they’re working on. If you’re lucky, not the product.
On the flip side, product mindset is teams being stood up to own and drive a product forward to make it successful in the marketplace. So that they’re caring about the product holistically, not just about the tiny little piece that they have to deliver right now. This comes into some differences in how you budget and how you fund projects as well.
There’s an illusion that it’s cheaper to do project-based work because you don’t have people working on something if you don’t have a project you want shipped. I, my argument is, you know, I’m a big proponent of product mindset because I think it’s, it’s so necessary if you really want to drive things forward. And ultimately if you’re not willing to stand up a team to work on a product, should that product be part of your portfolio? That’s one of the questions that you got to ask yourself, so, sorry, you know, I’m a define-the-damn-thing nerd. So I had to get that out there.
[00:11:50] Tammy Bulson: No, I’m glad. I’m glad you did. And in a project mindset, Will, would you say that when the project is delivered, that team stops, whereas with a product mindset, they, they stay with that product through the entire product life cycle?
[00:12:07] Will Sansbury: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the key difference. Right? Do, do you see the people working on the product as temporary—air quotes—resources who have been assigned in your grand, Microsoft project master plan for world domination, or are they assigned to the product? Do they, do they work on the product for perpetuity. Or to your point, at least until the product progresses through the life cycle.
[00:12:37] Amber Hansford: That project mindset. You’re there to do a job, to sling some code, to draw some screens, to get something out the door and ship it. A lot less of investment is there with a project mindset that I found than a product mindset. And yeah, there, I mean, on paper there, they are very similar. But, you know, to, to get great products out the door, your entire team has to not only know what the product vision is, but they have to believe in the product vision.
That investment is so integral to taking something that’s like—yeah, it’s a cool product—into being an actual great product that honest-to-God solves a customer’s problem. Without that, that’s really the difference. You fall into that feature factory of, “Oh yeah, I’m clocking in, I’m doing my time, I’m clocking out. I’m going home.” It’s, at least in my experience, that’s the difference. I was never invested in anything that was project-based. You give me a product to believe in? Blood, sweat, and tears. We’re going to get this out, and it’s gonna be great.
[00:13:57] Will Sansbury: It really is as different as project work being work-for-hire; product work is midwifery.
It’s bringing something to life and ushering it into the world. Right? The very different mindsets for those two. I hope nobody’s ever had someone help deliver a baby who was just interested in getting the baby out and then clocking out.
[00:14:21] Amber Hansford: I don’t think that that midwife would be very long in that career.
[00:14:26] Will Sansbury: They might be in the wrong discipline, then.
[00:14:28] Tammy Bulson: And I think I just learned how to say a new word. I always read that as mid-wife-ery but it’s midwifery.
[00:14:33] Will Sansbury: When we had two of our three, my wife was in her extremely crunchy granola hippie phase so I can tell you all about midwives and doulas and all sorts of things.
[00:14:44] Tammy Bulson: Sounds like another podcast.
[00:14:49] Amber Hansford: Let me get the domain.
[00:14:52] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, there we go.
So with a product mindset, do you— I wonder if there are companies that run both. You know, they have some things that are run on a project mindset and some things that are run on a product mindset, or is it an all or nothing thing? We, as a company, we have to be one or the other.
[00:15:13] Amber Hansford: I’ve seen both at different places that I’ve worked.
And then there’s folks that will say that they’re product-focused and product-led, but really at the end of the day, you take off that trench coat that they’ve coated themselves in, and it’s, it’s just project-based with Agile words.
But then again, I’ve also worked at places that, you know, it was very product-focused and product-led and they were really anti-project. And sometimes it is necessary to just get in, and get out, and get it done in that manner, without that kind of investment for one reason or another. I will always lean on product mindset versus project, but yeah.
I mean, they’re both necessary at times in my opinion.
[00:16:02] Will Sansbury: Yeah, I would, I would agree. I think that there are points in a product’s life cycle where it’s far more important that you have a product-level ongoing investment. When something is new —when you’re introducing it, when you’re growing it, trying to find that product-market fit— you need people who are around long enough and care about the end users enough to get to know them, understand what it is they’re looking for so that you can actually craft a solution that works for them. That solves real user problems.
If you’ve just got that project mindset at that stage, you’re going to end up with Ronco, right? You’ll ship it and forget it. If you’re lucky one out of a hundred might be successful out of sheer blind luck. Flip side, though, if you’ve got a product that’s maybe one of your company’s original products—it’s a legacy product is really mature, there’s not a whole lot to add to it, you’re just kind of addressing things periodically as you need to—then project work makes sense. It gives you more flexibility. You don’t have to have the full standing team. But the trade-off is you’re solving problems without really knowing the people that you’re solving problems for. I think that’s the ultimate cost of project versus product work.
And so you have to ask yourself, does it matter in this case, I would argue 99% of the time, if you’re talking about something for a customer who is not you, it matters. You need that empathy. You need product work.
[00:17:28] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, that’s interesting. Especially my background being a former recovering project manager, I think about it’s like the product mindset—that’s where the heart is, right? That’s, it’s really caring about something. It’s not just doing the thing and hitting deadlines and making sure that things get done on the checklist. But it’s really understanding the whole, like, I think you said, Will, empathizing and understanding really what the problem is and how your product is going to solve it.
[00:18:00] Will Sansbury: Yeah. It’s really crazy, if you think about it, because—and I imagine you were this kind of project manager, Tammy—the best project managers out there have always run projects with a product mindset. They’ve always cared deeply about the customer. They’ve wanted to solve real meaty, important problems. They were willing to confront inconvenient facts, if it meant we had to blow up two-thirds of our project plan, because we learned something that changed where we were going.
Unfortunately, there’s like 2% of all project managers fall in that description, right? So it really, by breaking— It’s kind of academic because product teams run projects. They decide they’re going to work on an epic, and they pursue that epic, and they get that epic out the door, and then they measure the outcome, and they make sure that the epic did what they needed to do.
And that’s a project.
The difference is that they’re running it with that people-first mentality. And I think we, we just had to give it another name because so much of project management has come to mean tapping your watch and scolding people that they’re late on the deliverable.
And that’s not what matters.
Project management is inherently output-focused. It’s about, did you do the job? Did you get the thing done? And to be outcome-centric in a project-focused world requires heroics. It requires people who are willing to stand alone and fight against the tide to really do what’s right for the customers. But just by shifting and pivoting and helping everyone have that language that says we’re not about just shipping things. We’re about making a difference for our customers. We’re about putting out products that change the world in some measurable way. If we can say that, and we can get people talking about that, but we’ve got to put another title on it. Great, awesome. Let’s embrace that product mindset because that’s where you do work that matters.
Project mindset: you do a lot of work. Product mindset: you do the work that matters.
[00:20:05] Tammy Bulson: That’s awesome.
[00:20:06] Amber Hansford: I would say that one of the most painful transitions that I’ve seen was when leadership came in and said, “We are now product-led, we’re going to focus, you know, that product mindset. All you project managers, you’re now product managers.” And walked away.
And it was so painful because you’ve got these folks that have been, you know, here’s my Gantt chart. Here’s when this release is going to go out, here’s XYZ. Everything is linear. Everything is, you know, by the date, and get it out the door, and ship it. To then have to, you know, completely stop in their tracks and go, “Does this solve a problem for the customers?” Just walking in and saying, “Hey, all you project managers, you’re now product managers” was not very successful. There was that 2 to 4% of the project managers who were already doing that product mindset work, but the rest of the folks were struggling. And so you had to then look at the culture and at that philosophy and not just that very tactical “Here’s your artifacts. You need to do a lean canvas. You need to do, you know, a product vision statement. You need your north star.”
You’ve got to get that philosophy of putting the customer first, and also in turn, making sure that you’re okay with throwing away your work. That was something that was just watching folks struggle with just that kind of thought process was, was so, so sad. And trying to go, “No, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
[00:21:55] Tammy Bulson: Yeah. Kill our darlings, right?
[00:21:58] Will Sansbury: I think that’s a killer point because there’s so much about product management work that is inherently creative and messy. Right? And it’s the Pigpen from Snoopy. Like, it’s that swirling cloud that eventually resolves into something.
But that’s not what project management is supposed to do. Project management is supposed to provide absolute clarity at all points, such that executives, know what the hell is going on, and it can be controlled and managed. And that works great. If what you’re doing is putting together Ikea furniture. It doesn’t work great if you’re doing any sort of creative knowledge work.
[00:22:37] Amber Hansford: No product management is more like, you know, putting together Ikea furniture, and you cannot find the Allen wrench.
[00:22:45] Will Sansbury: And you’ve been drinking since 10:00 AM.
[00:22:47] Amber Hansford: Yes.
[00:22:51] Tammy Bulson: Sounds a lot like predictable versus unpredictable problems that we have to solve.
And it’s funny because we just covered a lot of content that’s going to be in future podcasts. So a lot of the things that we’ve touched on, we’re going to dive in deeper in future podcasts. Thanks everyone for taking time to join us.
If you’re interested in hearing more, or if you have a topic that you’d like for us to cover, check us out at productoutsiders.com and find us on any podcast provider. Thanks for spending time with us. We’ll catch you all next time.
[00:23:31] Will Sansbury: Bye.