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Ever wondered what it’s like to be a Product Manager of the future? The closest we can come to answering this is listening to Sam Legge talk about his work as a Product Manager in Augmented Reality.
Working as a Product Manager for the future means building products for the future by focusing on a problem that exists today, and working to solve it in a better way using tomorrow’s technology. It's this focus that inspired Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, Virtual Reality and all other fields that employ technology in a way that hasn’t commonly been used yet.
Often, businesses focused on the future make the mistake of attempting to predict a need that will arise many years into the future, and then try to solve that need today. What they find after months and months of hard work is that this is a very difficult problem because you’re trying to educate the user on what the problem is and why they should care about it, while introducing them to something new all at the same time.
People are typically more successful when they avoid that route and change their approach to “what’s a problem that exists today and how can I address it with newer technology or in a more optimized way?”
While solving existing problems in new ways, you will be in uncharted territory. Whether it’s with the technology, the reference material or figuring out how to assemble a team of individuals who understand the task, it definitely presents its own unique challenges.
The biggest struggle is trying to understand the sandbox you’re playing in from a product perspective, and after you do, guiding the team into that sandbox. For instance, when the company that Sam worked for was working on smart glasses that could receive and respond to messages, tell the time, and carry out other productivity focused tasks, they had to come up with relevant questions.
Contrary to what you might think as a Product Manager, your job isn’t to know everything and to have all the answers. It’s to pull everyone together and figure it out, quickly and efficiently as a team. It’s also to adjudicate, negotiate, and get a consensus while making sure that people are heard. This is the value of a great leader/Product Manager.
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So with the glasses mentioned earlier, questions like “What do these glasses do?” “How can we make them more fashionable?” “What problem are we trying to solve?” “What would success on this project look like?” will arise and as the Product Manager, it’s your responsibility to find answers for your team to get them excited about the project.
Naturally, struggles arise because creating new things is filled with lots of uncertainty. One struggle is the constant changes and disruptions that force a change of plans. These are managed by creating clarity for your team in terms of “what do we need to accomplish and what’s going to be success at the end of the day”. At this point you can employ Product Management tools like the Product Roadmap, creating a flexible framework to guide the team’s work. Then assigning a time frame to the project and assessing when the time elapses to make follow-up decisions like “should we pivot?”
With Augmented Reality products and other products that deal with such advanced technology, the product is not the only cause of uncertainty, the work environment is too. The only way to navigate such uncertainty in the work environment is to create certainty in yourself.
So when you understand your personal values and what you want to come across as to the people you work with, especially as a Product Manager, it determines how you deal with issues that arise. The secret is to be as straightforward as possible about the uncertainty. Communicate with your team as to what you know or you don’t know at various points in time, and arrive at decisions in a timely manner because time is important.
In fact, Sam says that – “Time is your most valuable resource as a business. How you use your time is pretty much the most important thing that you can focus on as a Product Manager.” You have to be ruthless as to how you spend your time. Sit with your team and decide what you’re working on every sprint. You can’t let a sprint pass by without making any new steps in the direction of your goals. If you keep postponing things, you’re wasting time and it will cost you.
The wonder of these new technologies is not just the amazing products you can come up with, but also the lessons it’ll teach you about yourself as a Product Manager. For example, earlier in his career as Product manager, Sam used to think that in situations where people didn’t have the answer, he needed to provide one even if it involved just making something up. Of course that didn’t go well. You’ll be, as Sam was, proven wrong very quickly.
The correct thing to do in that situation is to talk to your team and lean on their expertise. The entire skillset of a Product Manager can be summarized with the following words: know what problems to solve but more importantly what questions to ask.
To improve that skillset, spend time on your research and with user researchers to see their work process. It is only by spending time with the users that you get a complete sense of what they need, what you should be building, and how you should do the work. Look for the ways that you can solve today’s problems with tomorrow's technology.
To stand out as a Product Manager, differentiate yourself. Develop a keen sense for user experience and look around you at all times – look at the designs of things, get products and try to understand them. Are they good or bad products? What were the reasons for your answer? This type of research matters especially to you as you work on a new product.
Finally, remember that you can build the best devices but if you’re unable to sell it and get it to your customers, you cannot profit off it. With that at the back of your mind and the future at your fingers, your work will be intentional and exciting.