Until You Ship, Communication Is the Deliverable

product management

Lessons from a book on "alpha product managers" on the paramount importance of communication

I’m a big fan of the Heath Brothers (Chip and Dan) who co-authored Made to StickSwitch, and Decisive, each one a fun and highly useable book on an interesting topic: Marketing, Behavior Change, and Decision Making, respectively. They have an email list where they very occasionally share updates on their work, ask questions, and offer up awesome nuggets.

Some time earlier this year they shared a list of seven books that they recommended. These books had to be well-written, provide some kind of useful / practical knowledge, and not be very widely-known – a great combination.

One of the books they mentioned was called The Alpha Project Manager.

The book is a short read and essentially a written summary / analysis of a multi-year project manager study that looked at 860 project managers and identified the top 2% based on assessments by senior management, team members, and customers. These “Alphas” worked in different industries, from manufacturing to retail to IT to construction, but in many ways their roles were like that of a product manager in a technology firm. We’ll use the term PM from here on out, recognizing that project and product managers are slightly different in responsibility.

I found the book highly valuable and its approach was similar to Jim Collin’s Good to Great and Great By Choice books in that they compared the high performing group with a control group of average performers. There were a lot of useful ideas / data points that came out of the book but here’s one big one:

Communication is Paramount

One of the biggest differences between Alpha and Average PMs is how they communicate the status and progress of the project. Both groups rate themselves highly in communication (to team members, executives, and customers) but when asked by those same stakeholders, Alpha PMs were rated way higher (30 basis pts) compared to Average PMs.

What made the difference? Two things that came up was that they sent shorter and more consistent communication. They sent a time frame in which they would communicate (e.g. weekly report sent Friday morning) and stuck to that through thick and thin. They also wrote less in those reports, sticking to the key issues, which meant their stakeholders would be more likely to actually consume the communication.

The danger of course, is that both groups thought they were doing well, but only one group was truly succeeding. This means you have to find ways to confirm with your stakeholders that they are indeed getting enough of the right kind of communication, and you just have to make it a priority.

“Until the product is in the customerʼs hands, communication is my deliverable.”Victor (Alpha Project Manager)

I liked Victor’s quote here because it can be easy to get caught up in “doing stuff” instead of just “talking about what you’re doing”, but the fact is, the people around your project don’t have the best view into what’s going on (compared to you). Their faith in you and willingness to support the project is based on their understanding of how it is going and what’s happening.

Anyway, it’s worth checking this book out. To quote an Amazon reviewer:

“This has to be one of the most under produced books I’ve ever seen. Crowe essentially self-published on his own Velociteach label. It shows. The graphics are third rate and the cover is pretty bad. But no matter. The information inside is fascinating.”