G.I. Joe Provides Product Managers With Practical Tips To Improve Communication

Yesterday we summarized G.I. Joe #27 In 10 Panels Or Less™. Now, let’s extract a product management lesson from the first comic book I ever read.

The G.I. Joe code-named Snake-Eyes is the definition of the strong, silent type: His mask covers his hideously scarred face, and his damaged vocal chords prevent him from speaking. His actions, though, speak volumes.

While you probably don’t have masked ninjas with pet wolves skulking around your office, you probably do interact with many different personality types during the day.

As a product manager, it’s your job to be fluent in the “languages” spoken by the people around you–to hear what they say, and what they don’t say.

People are complicated and dynamic, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand their motives and actions. As a product manager, you Get Things Done through other people. So if you don’t “get” them, you aren’t getting anywhere.

For example, suppose you’re creating a new mobile phone. As a product manager, you must be able to…

  • Translate high concepts (“multi-point gesture”) into features and requirements for engineering (“interface responds to strokes, twists and pinches of more than one finger, controlling virtual scroll-wheels and zooming intuitively”).
  • Translate that functionality into concrete end-user benefits for marketing (“visually stunning, incredibly responsive, makes communication simpler & more fun”).
  • And keep your ear to the target market so you know what they want, but have enough of an imagination to be a few steps ahead of them so you aren’t creating products that are out of date by the time they launch.

Layer different personality types on top, and the challenge gets really complex, really fast. So what’s a product manager to do?

First, understand who you’re dealing with. Include yourself in this evaluation.

I know many product managers who prefer communications via email because they like the idea of a virtual paper trail. All well and good–but suppose one or more of the people you’re interacting with are extroverts who thrive on interpersonal communication?

If you don’t give them the personal contact they’re looking for, you’re risking your product flying off the rails–and also missing a tremendous opportunity to forge a relationship that could pay dividends now and in the future.

Still want that virtual paper trail? Discuss face to face, then put it in writing as a summary email. Everyone wins.

Second, adjust your communication styles as needed.

Suppose your team is composed of two or more different personality types, extroverts and introverts–what do you do? You adjust.

For the outgoing folks, make sure you solicit their feedback and involve them in group work such as brainstorms.

For the quieter types, give them the breathing room necessary to execute their work on their own, but make sure their voice is represented in the product.

If you notice someone is very shy about speaking “on the spot” in meetings, for example, provide an agenda ahead of time so everyone has time to research the issue and compose their thoughts. (This approach could even help the folks who talk first, and think later.)

Is this “double” the work? No. This is your job. Do it.

Third, review your successes and make adjustments.

People are mercurial–influenced by their surroundings, their peers, their home life, even you. Pay attention to them. Listen to what they’re telling you. Observe.

The tactics that worked yesterday may not work today because their situation has changed.

Again, it’s your job to be aware and to adjust your approach to ensure that you’re doing everything you can to cut through the noise and make sure communication is happening routinely and effectively.

If all else fails, consider adopting that pet wolf.

Additional Resources

What kind of communication issues do you encounter in your organization? How do you manage them?

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Christopher Cummings

Blogs about product management. Loves Jesus, his family, comic books, video games, and giant robots. Occasionally crawls through mud and leaps over fire.

2 thoughts on “G.I. Joe Provides Product Managers With Practical Tips To Improve Communication

  1. Great article. I have a specific problem with an employee who doesn’t listen. Actually, she listens but it appears to be selective hearing, where she will implement new features or functionality on her own. Many times, what she’s doing is great. Other times, the features she’s implementing (in addition to being unauthorized, or at least not specifically authorized) are ones that have been rejected for various reasons. Any advice would be most welcome. Thanks!

  2. Hi Jennifer –

    This definitely sounds like a situation that needs to be addressed. However, before you start any corrective action, enumerate for yourself the (positive) ways the the employee can fix the current situation–make sure there are options. Also, be sure you know what actions you’re willing to take if she fails to fix the situation…

    That said, I would take a four part approach:

    1. Sit down with her and describe, in detail, what you’ve been noticing and why it concerns you.

    2. Ask why these things have been happening. Listen to what she says–maybe there’s something going on that you’re not aware of.

    3. Tell her the situation needs to change. Discuss ideas that will achieve those goals with tangible results.

    4. Agree on specific actions, specific results, and a timetable. Email her a summary of what was discussed and agreed to, and set up a future meeting to discuss results.

    Through it all, be sure to let her know that she is an important part of the team and that you believe the issues can be resolved. Set her mind at ease–but also make it clear there is a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s a careful balancing act, but it can be done.

    Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

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