Be The Greatest Product Manager Ever: A Deep Dive into Product Management Tips and Tricks for the Consulting World with Lewis C. Lin
Lewis C. Lin is the best selling author of Decode and Conquer, one of the finest books to prepare for product management interviews. He has years of experience leading teams at Google and Microsoft and is currently the CEO of two companies, Impact Interview and People Maven.
We hear a lot about how to survive and thrive as a product manager in big companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. However, there are also great product managers engaged in the consulting and agency world, which we are yet to learn more about.
With this article, we want to uncover the frameworks, tactics, and traits for product managers to succeed in the consulting and agency setting. To do so, we hosted Lewis C. Lin for a conversation on product management based on his most recent book, Be the Greatest Product Manager Ever.
The book is aimed at anyone looking to expand their Product Management skills and improve their career trajectory. Following the ESTEEM framework, Lin lays out the crucial skills needed to thrive as a product manager. The book centers around the experience of PMs at the big tech companies. But how does PMing shift in the consulting space? What does success look like for PMs who need to worry about the needs of their team plus clients? Lin helps us to understand the differences by discussing each section of his ESTEEM framework from the lens of a software development consulting firm.
Here is the TLDR version of the conversation that summarizes the interview. Though to understand the nuances and tactics in detail with amusing anecdotes and stories, we highly recommend reading this article and listening to the podcast.
System 2 thinking (introspective thinking) helps to brainstorm high-quality ideas that set you up for better execution
2. Superior Communication
Using frameworks helps in precise communication with clients, even if they don’t know you are using a framework
3. Tactical Awareness
- Use the “yes and” method to encourage collaborators to engage deeply in the problem-solving process
- Use “how” questions more than “why” questions
- Use data and facts to make decisions as much as you can, but build your intuition as well to make decisions when data is not available
- Be flexible with your product roadmap
4. Extraordinary Mental Toughness
Find out the decision-maker in the client to exercise influence
5. Exceptional Team Builder
Have an established process to onboard new team members to groom them for success.
6. Moonshot Vision
The road to great ideas involves having many bad ideas along the way. Build the habit of experimenting with many ideas, and don’t be scared of failing.
We will now discuss in details about each of the steps listed above:
Good execution is a crucial skill for any product manager. If you can’t get stuff done and effect change, you will struggle to be successful. Lin offers a method of thinking shifts from reactively completing actions, to a thoughtful and innovative way. System 1 thinking refers to this baseline, reactive way of thinking. When we wake up in the morning, we brush our teeth, eat breakfast, drive to work, and answer emails. We do all these tasks on autopilot without any introspection. The problem is, we don’t want to tackle our PM tasks from system 1 thinking. PMs need to be innovative and active. To achieve this, we need to utilize our deep problem-solving skills or System 2 thinking.
The importance of using deep, critical thinking skills grows exponentially when providing creative solutions for our clients. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling pressure to have a breadth of new ideas to whip out for clients at the drop of a hat.
Lin notes that by taking the time to brainstorm properly, the ability to provide quality ideas increases. This means taking a few solid minutes (yes minutes, not seconds!) to think through valid options before offering clients a solution calmly. It can also mean telling clients that the team will break for a few days and brainstorm viable options. This may feel awkward— we are used to immediately providing a quick response in attempts at sounding knowledgeable and smart. The reality is, good ideas don’t appear at a moment’s notice. They take time and care to flesh out. Clients will respect the commitment to quality ideas over rushing to get to a solution.
2. Superior Communication
Great product managers smoothly communicate their ideas and vision to their team, clients, and end-users. Lin offers that using a framework can be an effective method for keeping communication on track during a project. Everyone will easily know the status of the project if they can pinpoint the current phase by using a framework.
While this works well for an internal team, how does this translate to client work? Many clients may not see the relevance of frameworks, or will not want to be bogged down by the details. They may even view them as too elementary. Lin proposes a few suggestions to this problem:
Disguise the use of the framework
We can continue to use a framework for internal purposes without making it apparent to the client. We will still seem polished and prepared, and they don’t need to worry about the organizational details.
Rebrand the framework
In addition to disguising the framework, we can share it with the client at the end of the project. When the engagement comes to a close, we can rewrite the framework using the client’s branding and language. This empowers them to recreate the success of the initial project.
3. Tactical Awareness
Being able to deploy PM tools successfully allows us to further the success of the team and project. Lin describes how important it is to be able to assess a situation and react with tact and curiosity to not just come to a solution, but also empower team members and clients. We discuss a few different communication tactics, such as the “yes, and” method and the power of how questions.
Lin draws a parallel between improv comedy and the tech world. In improv comedy, it is essential to build off the narrative of your fellow entertainers so that you can create a richer performance. If you say “yes, but” in response to what another comedian offers to the skit, you halt the flow of the narrative. The story falls apart. “Yes, and” allows the performance to gain momentum. The experience is constructive and collaborative and draws the audience in.
This collaborative culture is something to strive for in a tech project, as well. Mainly as PMs, it is essential to foster creativity in our teammates. We want to empower them to learn, grow, and dream up innovative ideas. Avoiding “yes, but” with team members means that all ideas get a chance to breathe without being shot down.
The importance of “How” questions
Another communication tactic to empower team members is through the use of “how” questions. We want to allow our team to think big and foster respectful dialogue. The use of too many “why” questions can have a similar effect to “yes, but.” When “why” questions are rooted in skepticism or disagreement, they halt the flow of a meeting. Instead, using questions like, “how would you approach this issue,” allows your team to offer their advice and opinion without burdening them with the task itself. No one likes to be told what to do, but everyone loves to provide their opinion.
Establishing expectations with clients is another crucial tactic to have a successful discovery question period. Some clients may push back on spending too much time answering rigorous questions. A solution can be to 1. Let them know the timeframe for the question period, and 2. focus on open-ended questions as much as possible. This allows clients to speak freely on topics that they have strong opinions about.
Data-driven vs. intuitive decision making
Once we have finished the discovery period, we will need to utilize our data-driven and intuitive decision-making skills. Both are critical PM skills to pull from our toolbox. Although we may have experience and intuition to rely on, solid data is always crucial to inform product direction. The difficulty comes with knowing when to employ which tactic.
Lin asserts that data is crucial. Always err on the side of gathering data. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is assuming that we know enough about our users after only talking to 5 of them. If we don’t know much about the target audience, then it may take years of focus groups and surveys to understand the full scope of their pain points and desires. That being said, once we have years of experience, there are cases where we may fill in some gaps based on the data we have previously collected.
A great place where intuitive decision making can shine is in new and creative innovations. Lin describes the famous story, which pointed out that Henry Ford’s customers would have said they wanted a faster horse, not a car. Sometimes our ability to dream big brings us to higher levels of innovation that we will not be able to ascertain on user feedback alone. Fueling user feedback into creativity will allow us to deliver better results to our users.
Keep your product roadmaps flexible
Roadmaps can be a tactical advantage to product managers. In his book, Lin argues that they can’t remain fixed because often, the product direction changes before everything in the roadmap is implemented. Because of this, we discussed strategies for keeping them pliable. Lin quotes the amazon method of having strong beliefs, held weakly. This mantra applies beautifully to roadmaps. We want roadmaps that are detailed to effectively communicate expectations with the consulting team and client.
If there is a situation where the client wants to change direction, or there is a competitive technological shift, don’t be afraid to reconstruct the roadmap to keep the project current and effective. Lin shares the Maya Angelou quote, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We can’t get hung up on not nailing it the first time. All the work that has been done previously is part of the process and will be relevant for some future work that we have not yet realized.
4. Extraordinary Mental Toughness
A pivotal PM skill includes navigating the politics of not just your organization, but your client’s organization as well. How do we quickly understand the structure of our client’s company? Unfortunately, when things need to get done, you have to be able to influence others. Especially as an external force, you can’t always rely on authority to get things done. It is vital to figure out who holds the decision making power.
A trick to gathering political knowledge is merely asking the client who has final authority and says. This will tell us if anyone behind the scenes is driving decision making that we are not aware of. We want to understand the motivations of everyone on our client’s team. We can assume that on some level, everyone wants to look good.
As consultants, we need to remember that the image of our clients is more critical than our self-image. A tactic to capitalize on this can be to involve clients in the final presentation to the stakeholders. Some consultants may resist this because they want recognition for their hard work. But by letting their clients drive the presentation, they will have an opportunity to shine in front of their superiors. This will ultimately lead to a better perception of the consulting firm and solidify working relationships.
5. Exceptional Team Builder
Crafting functional teams is a skill that takes finesse, but is an excellent asset for any product manager. At Leapfrog, we are always working on ways to streamline our onboarding processes. If new team members need to be brought on to a project, it is imperative to have a quick way to get people up to speed.
Senior executives may view themselves as too senior to be involved with team dynamics, but their technique and skills are important for creating new processes. Lin cites an example from Amazon. Their executive team implemented a process for how meetings are run. This may seem banal for an exec team, but it has had an enormous impact on the culture of meetings and communication at Amazon. Before each meeting, product managers must write a brief detailing the specific agenda and topics. The first fifteen minutes of the meeting is spent quietly reading the brief so that everyone is on the same page. This process has regulations around who is prepping the documentation and how to craft this brief. New team members must be trained on how to participate in Amazon meetings.
We can take inspiration from this example in our onboarding efforts. Establishing a process upfront sets expectations with new team members. They can quickly get the skills that they need to be successful. This, in turn, optimizes the overall project trajectory as new people can generate results faster.
6. Moonshot Vision
Moonshot vision is all about that x-factor quality that brings those once-in-a-lifetime products into fruition. How do we generate the Steve Jobs level of inspiration? How do we delight our customers time and time again?
The reality is that it requires a big volume of ideas to come up with one or two delightful ones. Yes, Steve Jobs has many great ones, but he too had a few flops. For example, he created the hockey puck-shaped mouse in the 90s. Because of the shape, you never knew which side was up. It was impossible to locate the cursor due to the poor ergonomic design.
If the great Steve Jobs couldn’t always deliver, neither can we. If we continue to focus on innovation, maybe we will land on a few groundbreaking gems. The key is to continue to try— don’t be deterred by the fear of failure or embarrassment.
A huge thanks to Lewis Lin for coming on our podcast and sharing his product management knowledge. To listen to the full interview, and other podcasts, visit our podcast hub: