Product management and empathy

Having started a small company that grew into a medium sized one, that was acquired by a large American one, and expanded to include three other countries in Europe I’ve developed a fairly broad understanding of what product management looks like across a range of organisations.

And despite now running a small company again with a team of less than ten I’m confident that the the things that makes a good product manager remain the same.

A good product manager has a strong grasp of technology, of design and the machinations of “the business”. But, beyond all of that, a good product manager needs a high degree of emotional intelligence and more specifically of empathy.

The meeting of design, technology and “business” means that a PM is inevitably dealing with a large number of internal stakeholders, each with their own sets of beliefs and customers that define their motivations. Then there is the far more important fourth stakeholder, the user, who if you own a product of any size, is likely to be broken down further still into different personas, demographic cohorts and alike.

In short a PM has a a wide range of stakeholders who all feel connected to the product that they are responsible for shipping. Ensuring that you’ve satisfied all of them when you finally deliver feels a lot like spinning plates. And while many would argue that the only customer you actually need to please is the user, the reality of working in a large organisation is far from that simple.

Empathy, ones ability to understand and share the feelings of another, becomes a hugely important attribute then. To skilfully balance the desires of this diverse group of people, who all care deeply about the product, and believe their priorities will define the success of the company is incredibly hard. It requires an individual who can step into their shoes, understand all their motivations and deliver something that satisfies them. If any one of these groups feels disenfranchised by what actually ships it’s going to be all the more difficult to get them on board next time. If that group is the user, there may not be a next time.

Empathy is not an easy trait to hire for, but it’s one that companies are recognising the importance of, and as this change in attitude continues I’m confident we’ll discover new strategies for uncovering it. Until then recognising the significance of empathy and how it will help deliver a more rounded product is an important step forward.

Daniel Bower

Blogging about platform regulation: algorithms, interoperability, kill zones as well as other bits and bobs. Read about my research, or read more about me.