The 5Cs of effective product management “soft skills”

Yes, shamelessly capitalizing on Avatar’s popularity, I think the core traits a good software product manager needs are well embodied by Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar: Jake Sully. Here we’ll look at a little mnemonic, called the 5Cs, to help keep these traits all straight.

Why Jake has all the skills

When looking at the movie Avatar, one can directly glean a number of skills that are directly applicable to those required by good product managers. These are summarized using the following 5C mnemonic:

  • “Clock-speed” (Brains)
  • Conviction (Guts)
  • Charisma
  • Character
  • Curiosity

Here’s how good product managers use each of these.

But first, the basics – your admission ticket

There are some baseline skills that are necessary, but not sufficient, to be a successful PM – you gotta have them to even be in the game, far less being a star performer. The first of these traits is impeccable communication skills that include telling great stories (presentations), distilling ideas, writing specifications, and most importantly listening. Secondly, great organizational abilities are a must, enabling one to develop processes / systems
, plan schedules, and manage time effectively. My former Sloan classmate, Gummi Hafsteinsson, as a great post on his blog entitled “What makes a good product manager for software development?” which delves into this as well.

1) Clock-speed: Brains from both the right & left side

In addition to the standard “left-brained” problem solving, you also have to factor in the “right brain” creativity to imagine unseen possibilities to develop truly unique and novel solutions. The combination of these provides a deep understanding of the customer pains and needs, and potential solutions that can be brought to bear. Moreover in today’s world, the pace of new technologies is accelerating, thereby throwing vast amounts of new information that product managers must assimilate, which requires a high “clock-speed” to process.

2) Conviction: Taking a stand, making a call, and being accountable

The ability to synthesize information from multiple sources on the fly, and to make a decision under uncertainty is of paramount importance. Sometimes it means a data-driven decision, but many times it requires some good old fashioned intuition, as options are rarely crystal clear. It’s that ability to do what you believe is right when there is abundant ambiguity, in a timely manner, while staying cool under fire. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong and you’ll learn fast and take corrective action – but that ability to stand up and take responsibility when you don’t have complete control of the situation is key.

3) Charisma: Leading teams and building relationships

The ability to build, motivate, and lead an effective team is also a key skill. Often times product management epitomizes the “influence without authority” adage, as it entails driving cooperation and consensus between a cross-functional team of engineers, designers, salespeople, marketing, and of course the customers. So the ability to articulate and manage a vision, negotiate and reconcile dissenting points of view, and still maintain a strong, cohesive product is really, really hard.

4) Character: Attitude over aptitude

This trait is all about how someone is wired. It’s difficult to extract this from a basic interview, but in a work setting it doesn’t take long to know who’s got it and who doesn’t. The most important of these qualities is integrity; simply put, if you can’t trust this person to watch your kid, you can’t have them oversee your product line. After that the next thing is that internal burning desire to make something happen, or a bias toward action. Finally, the person has to wants to see results and be accountable for them. At the end of the day, it’s about the hunger and desire to do what’s right, so in this regard I value the person who “has it” but may not have the experience, over those that are experienced but complacent or untrustworthy.

5) Curiosity

Finally, while raw intellectual horsepower helps, it needs to be accompanied with a healthy dose of curiosity, and an overall willingness to learn. This trait illustrates a passion to learn new technologies, comparative solutions, and solve problems in novel ways which helps in showing how one will learn and grow over time.

What do you value?

So if you find someone like Jake Sully that has the 5Cs of clockspeed, conviction, charisma, character, and curiosity you’re all set. What are the major traits that you think good PM’s need?


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