4. Refining Product Capabilities

Learn how to focus your product capabilities

Overview

Once you’ve cleared the generalist skills bar, it’s time to refine your product capabilities by reducing your weaknesses and doubling down on a core strength.

Product Capabilities

Product capabilities are the main abilities you need to have in order to perform the primary product function: defining a value-added product and getting it delivered. These capabilities are:

Product Thinking: the ability to discover and solve for a problem that delivers value

  • User value:  discover, define, and analyze products that deliver user value
  • Business value: discover, define, and analyze products that deliver business value

Communication: the ability to clearly articulate reasoning, definition, and progress

  • Up and out: communicate upwards in a chain of command and outwardly towards users
  • In and across: communicate within the development team and across the organization

Influence & Leadership: the ability to lead through influence to deliver results

  • Development team: lead the product direction of the development team
  • Organization: leverage influence across the organization to get resources

Judgement: the ability to make sound decisions in challenging environments

  • Prioritization: made trade-offs to determine what to do and what not to do
  • Ambiguity: make decisions with limited information and varying risks

Deliver Results: the ability to get results

  • Effectiveness: drive efficiency in a team or process
  • Outcomes: deliver meaningful outcomes

Bringing Weaknesses Up to Par

Start first by bringing weaknesses up to par. These are areas where you either aren’t as skilled as you would like to be or generally feel you’re not competitive. Look for ways to stretch that capability when you have the opportunity. The great thing about product capabilities is that they are very general. The bad thing is that they are all experiential, meaning you learn and improve through experience.

As a result, chances are you’ll have some opportunity to flex product capabilities regardless of what your job is as long as you're creative about it. For example:

  • Product thinking: try coming up with a tool, a dashboard, or a process to improve something important for your team
  • Communication: try sending out updates about your new tool and getting feedback on how it was perceived
  • Influence: try getting another team to test the new tool for you
  • Judgement: try getting some feedback on the tool and prioritize what improvements to add
  • Results: set a goal for team adoption of your tool and try to hit it

It's generally best to try to do this in some professional environment because that will mimic the constraints of a PM more closely. Creating a personal project at home to exercise these capabilities isn't a bad idea either, but it tends to be too free. As a result, it will tend to give you an artificial understanding. You don't really have to deal with competing priorities, consequences, or other people's opinions - all things that are crucial to the PM's role. However, a personal project is great for exercising your creativity and stretching your generalist skills.

This step is important because the job hunting process is first a process of elimination by resume, by recruiter screen, and by take-home challenge. You want to provide as little reason as possible to get eliminated from an interview where you can really shine.

Identifying a Strength

Next, identify your major strength. This is the one area where you are significantly better or have potential to become significantly better than the rest. Double down in this area and try to improve your performance. You want to be more competitive than most in your chosen dimension.

Usually when people pick a strength, it's something they are naturally good at. One of the biggest hurdles is figuring out how to get better at something you're good at. One of the best ways to do this is to try to explain it to someone else who isn't as good. You'll find that trying to fill the gap in understanding will require you to outline a framework, which will, in turn, help you better understand your own process. This tends to illuminate what levers you can tweak to get better.

Having a major strength allows you to stand out from the crowd when you get the chance to effectively pitch a team to take a chance on you.

What Won't Work

Being a rockstar at one thing, but having serious weaknesses is not going to work. Those weaknesses are going to show up in the elimination process. For example, let's say you are amazing at coming up with fantastic product ideas and executing on them. You have a portfolio of awesome projects you've done but you don't tell any narrative, your resume is poorly communicated, and you never worked on a team. These are red flags that will get you eliminated in the recruiting process.

Product managers are ultimately company resource allocators with a specific scope. To obtain the ability to prioritize, set the strategy, and allocate company resources, you need to be able to show you have all the capabilities it takes, not just one.

On the other hand, not having a strength and being just well-rounded across the board isn't a great idea either. It can potentially work, but it's often problematic because of how competitive the landscape is. If you're up against a bunch of well-rounded candidates for the job, the one with the best matching strength for the position will win.

Get Virtual Mentors

Find product thinkers that you think are interesting and follow them on Twitter. Get exposure to their thoughts. This will give you a sense for how to improve simply through osmosis. Find a few who seem to be excellent at what you are weak at and a few who you think have a similar strength. It can be very hard to gauge that from a few tweets, so just start off by following a bunch. Over time, you'll get a sense for how they think and you'll be able to refine your list.

This will also give you exposure to the lingo. Every industry has its own terminology, topics en vogue, and threads of thought. Start getting a pulse on the way PMs talk about ideas and express their opinions. This will help you in the interview stage when you'll be asked product questions. You will develop a better sense for what kind of thought process they are looking for.

Checklist

  • Figure out your weaknesses and practice them
  • Figure out your strength and improve your performance to be competitive
  • Find virtual mentors on Twitter and follow them
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