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Clement Kao on honing product sense, upskilling PMs, and advice for anyone looking to get promoted quickly
Product State Q&A
EC: How can early-career Product Managers develop their product sense and innovation skills?
CK: Many junior PMs and aspiring PMs often find themselves intimidated by the notion that product sense and innovation are innate, non-trainable skills. Lots of folks believe they’re never going to be innovators, or that they’re never going to intuitively ‘get’ product management.
After all, Ken Norton’s profession-defining “How to Hire a Product Manager” states that product instincts ‘can be tuned, but it can’t be learned.’
While I understand where he’s coming from, I respectfully disagree based on the firsthand evidence that I’ve seen in my coaching.
Product sense can be broken down into concrete sets of ‘questions to ask’ and principles to follow, making it accessible for anyone regardless of their prior experience.
To gain & refine product sense, you don’t need to have worked in software before, nor do you need a working track record in product management, UX design, engineering, or data analytics. Product sense is not an elusive talent reserved for a select few — it's a skill that can be acquired and developed through structured learning and practice.
I’ve personally trained folks who started with ‘zero product sense,’ yet have blossomed into innovative problem solvers who can design elegant solutions at scale.
It’s definitely easier for some folks than other folks to learn, but it’s still ultimately a learnable skill. So here’s how to learn it.
Every product question can be broken down into eight components:
Customer segments: Which customer segments exist? Which is the most valuable to focus on?
Pains: What kinds of pains will customers likely have? Where are there unmet needs?
Competitors and substitutes: What are customers currently using? How well do these solutions solve pains?
Workflow: What new user behaviors am I proposing? How easy or difficult will these behaviors be to adopt?
Frictions: What are the potential things that might confuse people or slow them down?
Desirability: How will our targeted customer segment likely feel about our solution?
Positioning: How should we market our product to our targeted customer segment?
Return on investment: How much value will our solution yield, how much will it cost, and how long will it take to pay off?
You can use these questions against all of the products and apps that you use in your day to day life. Use it on Gmail, or on Microsoft Word, or on Amazon.com ecommerce, or on Venmo, or on TikTok. You’d be surprised by how much product sense you already have!
You can work with mentors or coaches to help you strengthen your product sense. Remember, product sense is a skill that can be honed over time with dedication and deliberate practice; it’s not something that people are born with.
Here’s a great analogy - let’s think about lawyers for a second. They’re pretty quick at analyzing legal contracts, right? It looks almost like intuition or second nature to them.
But, lawyers become proficient in contract analysis through repeated exposure and training. There's no mystical ‘innate contract sense’ that individuals are born with! Instead, they develop their expertise over time through repeated exposure and practice.
This applies to product sense as well. By breaking it down into actionable steps and seeking guidance from experienced professionals, you can develop the ability to think, act, and solve problems like a seasoned product manager.
My advice for early-career PMs and aspiring product people: at every opportunity, you should deploy product sense against every initiative that you're actively tackling, so that you start to think, act, and solve like a product manager.
Whether you’re leading a marketing campaign, debugging a technical problem, or running a volunteer event, you can use these eight product sense questions to amplify your outcomes.
EC: How can Product orgs continuously upskill their PMs?
CK: The way that many product organizations currently upskill their product managers is not sustainable or scalable. Across all of my engagements, I’ve seen that there are generally three approaches orgs try to use for upskilling their PMs:
PM Managers lead training
Peer PMs lead training
PM Managers hire for gaps
Unfortunately, these three approaches tend to have myriad drawbacks.
What’s the root cause problem here? The root cause is that most product leaders are focused on tackling the problem in-house on their own.
A more effective strategy for product leaders is to consider the ‘build-or-buy’ conversation. Just as you wouldn't allocate valuable engineering resources to build an internal email system or task-tracking system from scratch, the same principle applies to PM professional development.
In this context, ‘buying’ means bringing in external PM trainers who specialize in providing comprehensive and tailored training solutions. This approach offers several advantages:
Expertise: External trainers bring specialized knowledge and experience to the table, ensuring that PMs receive high-quality and up-to-date training.
Efficiency: Instead of reinventing the wheel, product leaders can leverage existing training programs and resources, saving time and effort.
Targeting: External trainers can tailor their programs to the specific needs and goals of the organization, addressing skills and knowledge gaps effectively.
Diversity of perspectives: External trainers can introduce fresh perspectives and best practices from a variety of industries and companies, enriching the learning experience.
Scalability: External training solutions can be easily scaled to accommodate a growing number of PMs, ensuring consistent and standardized skill development.
By adopting a ‘buy’ approach to PM professional development through external trainers, product leaders can provide their teams with valuable resources that empower PMs to excel in their roles and contribute to the organization's success.
This way, PM Managers no longer need to sacrifice the time, bandwidth, and focus of their most talented product people to run internal training programs. If you look at the numbers, a couple of targeted group training sessions is easily much more affordable than opening up expensive PM full-time headcount to ‘hire in’ those skills.
EC: What’s your advice for Product Managers looking to get promoted quickly?
CK: Many PMs are ambitious problem-solvers; of course we want to encourage their sense of ambition! The world becomes a better place when smart people push themselves to help as many people as possible.
However, the reality is that not all PMs will have the opportunity to ascend to executive roles within their orgs. This is by design: org structures fundamentally have limits to how many Directors of Product or VPs of Product they can support.
Let’s work through the logic. A director might oversee a team of 5-10 PMs, while a VP might manage 3-5 directors.
Using our math above: for every VP of Product out there, there’s a minimum of 3 x 5 = 15 PMs who can’t be VPs (with the worst case being 5 x 10 = 50 PMs who can’t be VPs).
This structure inherently means that a significant number of individual contributor (IC) PMs may not have an actionable path to becoming high-level people managers.
So, I’ve got a hot take. Consider not climbing the career ladder inside your company.
What do I mean by this? Well, there's an alternative path for PMs to expand their skills, increase their impact, and boost their total earnings: they can give themselves a promotion through extracurricular paid work.
PMs can take on additional roles such as PM coaches, PM trainers, PM consultants, or product advisors & scouts at venture capital firms. These roles allow PMs to leverage their expertise and provide value beyond their day-to-day responsibilities.
They don’t need to wait for their organizations to formally promote them, because they already have everything at their fingertips to promote themselves.
By becoming PM coaches, trainers, or advisors, PMs can:
Share knowledge: you have the opportunity to pass on your valuable experience and insights to aspiring PMs, helping them navigate their career journeys effectively.
Earn income: When you provide value outside of your company, you have the right to capture value for yourself. You don’t have to volunteer for free - many customers are more than willing to pay you fair market value, and this provides an opportunity for you to increase your overall earnings without a title change.
Broaden their network: By interacting with professionals in various industries and roles, you can expand your professional network, opening doors to new opportunities.
Augment their skills: Teaching, coaching, and advising require excellent communication and leadership skills, which can enhance your skill set as a PM. Plus, once you’ve got this figured out, it’s much easier to demonstrate people management skills within your current org.
Of course, when taking the extracurricular path, you'd ideally clear it with your direct manager so that there's no conflict of interest.
PMs at all levels of seniority can create their own career promotions by diversifying their roles and making a broader impact in the field of product management, all while continuing to learn and grow in their profession. Whether you’re an associate product manager, a principal product manager, a director of product, or even a chief product officer, you can always pull the ‘extracurricular’ lever to advance your career.
The great thing about our modern economy is that you’re not beholden to a single employer for the next 40 years; you can carve out your own trajectory as you see fit.
Still skeptical? More and more product leaders are spinning up their own coaching practices!
Shreyas Doshi is coaching now.
Ken Norton is coaching now.
Casey Winters is coaching now.
It definitely tells you something when some of the most qualified and eligible product professionals aren’t taking Chief Product Officer roles today!
“Product sense is not an elusive talent reserved for a select few — it's a skill that can be acquired and developed through structured learning and practice.”
- Clement Kao
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