There’s no way around it: building a successful product takes a heck of a lot of skill.

According to Harvard Business School, there are over 30,000 new digital and physical products introduced every year. 95% of those don’t make it. When you zoom in to app development, the chances of success only get slimmer, with the numbers showing that 9,999 in 10,000 mobile apps will fail.

Here’s the million-dollar question: what can you do to set your product management team up to be part of that 0.01%?

While there are some factors outside of your control, there are plenty of actions you can take to gear your product up for success — and one of the most important factors is communication.

So, you’ve got a bunch of talented people at your disposal with diverse personalities, different communication styles, their own strengths and weaknesses, and areas of expertise (not to mention your own). How do you bring all of these elements together to deliver something that’s useful for customers, is commercially viable and, most importantly, deliver it on time?

In this post, we take a look at 5 of the most common communication problems that product teams face, and the product manager soft skills you need to have in order to resolve them. With these traits of a good product manager, you’ll have all the tools you need to build and develop your team and your product — to win.

Mistake #1 in product communication: Avoiding or ignoring the risks involved

Product development is an inherently risky business. Even if you’ve done all the groundwork, conducted countless hours of market research, developed the perfect launch strategy, and done hundreds or thousands of user tests, there are still a number of risks associated with product design.

Some product teams or product managers simply sweep risks under the rug. They have the utmost confidence in the product and remain blind to the inevitable risks that come up along the way (case in point: CD Projekt Red’s disastrous development of
Cyberpunk 2077). Like a snowball, these risks grow as the business gets more invested in the process — until the costs of failure are unbearably high.

How to address it: make it okay to talk about risk

You can never truly eliminate risk in product design. Instead of fighting it, embrace it and talk about it openly amongst the team. Making risk a common topic allows the varied experience in the room to identify potential risk and minimise risk early on in the game, while it’s still cheap to turn it around.

Share your plans with the product team and discuss the intended outcomes upfront — then open it up to discussion and invite the team to poke holes. Doing this will enable the team to support you in decision-making and the commercial viability around your timeline and budget. If you don’t already have one, a risk and issues register is a great way to enable the team to flag concerns and put them on the radar.

Need more help? Check out our 7-step guide to product design risk assessment here.

Mistake #2: Adopting a blanket communication style for everyone

Everyone communicates differently. Some people prefer to lay out the facts, while others want to cultivate relationships before talking about business. If you speak to both team members in the same way, you open the team up to tension, mistakes and misunderstandings.

These problems can quickly become a massive roadblock in developing a great product. At best, they can lead to small stumbles when working together on different elements of the project. At worst, you’ll end up with friction or team members jumping ship, which can completely derail timelines and blow budgets out of the water.

How to be an effective product manager: get to know your team’s communication styles

Understanding the four core styles of communication is a key skill in any effective product manager’s arsenal. This enables you to understand and manage your product manager communication style as well as your team’s, whether it’s in a 1-to-1 setting or in a team meeting,

Be careful not to assume. Look for cues as to how your team engages with you and each other based on these four communication styles, then adapt your approach to suit:

  • Analytical: This team member is all about the facts and most likely the best problem solver on your team. They adopt a direct communication style, and always look for hard evidence to back up any claims. Encourage your team to come to every meeting or discussion with data, and be sure to adopt a structured approach to meetings including a clear agenda, detailed minutes and action points.

  • Intuitive: Intuitive team members like to blend together data and the big picture to achieve a vision. They’re all about the North Star, prefer to-the-point conversions, and tend not to get caught up in the smaller details. Prepare for this type of communicator with visual aids that guide their attention towards the details, and give them plenty of room for out-of-the-box thinking. You never know what nuggets you might unearth.

  • Functional: These communicators are highly detail-oriented and take a holistic approach to solving problems. They’re the ones that take the idea and break it down into a process, which means they can quickly get frustrated if there’s no clear plan to move forward. Work on your active listening skills with these team members (see the next point for more), encourage feedback, and always have clear deadlines, expectations and processes to ensure they have everything they need to do their job well.

  • Personal: If you have a person on your team that always asks “how was your weekend?” before a meeting, they probably have a personal communication style. These communicators focus on relationships first, and can often be the glue that holds your team together. Try to keep things casual and communicate face-to-face with these team members, and be sure to ask about their lives as well as business. Otherwise, they may lose motivation or feel like the atmosphere is too business-like for their taste.

This is one of the essential skills for a product manager — and once you’ve it, it’ll serve you for life in managing up, running your team, and keeping stakeholders informed.

Mistake #3: Waiting to talk, rather than listening

When people talk, they want others to listen to them. However, when they listen, a lot of people are actually just waiting until it’s their turn to talk again. This is especially true when you’re working with a diverse team of developers, designers and managers — all of whom have their own vision and opinions on the product.

It can be tempting to just wait until you can get a word in edgeways, but this approach is often more counterproductive than it is beneficial. When you wait to talk instead of actively listening, you miss out on potential risks that might be identified, valuable opportunities to consider a new feature, or warning signs that the timeline or budget aren’t realistic.

How to improve as a product manager: learn to listen, not to hear

The excitement of delivering something exciting can cause the team to jump on board, without really critical thought. Be careful to listen to those that are less onboard with the plan. Take time to consider the negative feedback, as there is often a valid basis for their reservations and presents the opportunity to build a better product.

Not sure where to start? Harvard Business Review defined four qualities that separate great listeners versus average listeners:

  • They ask questions to promote discovery and insight, with a view to engage in thoughtful and meaningful discussion.
  • A good listener creates a safe environment where the other person feels supported and trusted — a place where issues and differences can openly be discussed without criticism or judgment.
  • Good listeners don’t get defensive about comments that are made. Rather than listening to identify errors in reasoning or logic, focus on challenging assumptions or disagreeing from a position of trying to help, not of trying to ‘win’ the argument.
  • They make suggestions that take into account what the other person is saying. These suggestions aren’t forceful or seen as the answer to the problem. They’re positioned as ideas or food for thought for the other person.

If you can nail down this skill, it becomes much easier to have those difficult conversations that push a product forward or take it to the next level.

Mistake #4: Not connecting the product with the end game

Every product starts out with a vision. However, as the team gets deeper and deeper into the build, it’s easy to lose track of the goal in the first place — especially if the timeline is taking place over months. If the North Star gets put on the back burner, you might find that decisions are being made that don’t necessarily contribute to the overall commercial goal of the business, or features get prioritised that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

How to be a successful product manager: integrate your team with the broader business objectives

Product design is a team effort with a shared goal. Create brand advocates within your team by giving them a holistic view from a product and a commercial standpoint, and focus on highlighting their role within this big picture. These champions will help you push the vision forward and ensure that decisions are always being made with the broader goal in mind.

At the same time, be open and transparent about what you’re trying to achieve as a group. Don’t keep the commercial goals hidden — put them out in the open and use this as a compass to guide decisions and provide feedback to your team.

Mistake #5: Giving feedback that isn’t meaningful

If you’re building a product, chances are you’ve heard the lines “that won’t work” more than once. However, unless this type of feedback is accompanied by productive next steps, it often falls on deaf ears. When you hear this feedback time and time again, it can create animosity or disconnect between teams (“They just don’t get it”), or lead to decisions being made that don’t benefit the overall business strategy.

How to communicate product changes: use the right tools to facilitate feedback

A lack of meaningful feedback is usually underpinned by a lack of understanding. The person giving feedback may not understand the objective of the product or may struggle to put the pieces together (this is particularly common if you’re working with an app design that has several different user flows). They may also lack historical context on how an idea was developed, or why certain decisions were made, such as a product change log.

So how do product managers and dev communicate with ops and other teams effectively? The key is to be selective when you ask for feedback, and who you solicit that feedback from. Rather than sending an email asking the entire team to take a look at a prototype without giving any more context, use a product modelling tool to demonstrate user flows and provide additional detail surrounding the decision-making process. These tools are also handy when it comes time to hand off a product from design to development without losing any communication along the way.

Which is your best-kept communication secret? Please share it! I’d love to hear from you (@JamesBillson on LinkedIn and Twitter).