Build your superpower as an ex-consultant product manager
The skills to harness vs. unlearn to be a rockstar PM
|May 17, 2020|| 20||4|
Going from making slides to building products is a giant leap. While consulting and product management are different beasts, training in the former can build superpowers for the latter.
I’ve been reflecting on how my formative years in consulting have both helped me and held me back as a PM. It’s also a lesson in how path dependencies shape our lives.
Consulting is the ultimate bootcamp for professional life. The firms have a singular dedication to training their people because the people = the product. Others may toast to the importance of people, but in consulting, there are no competing priorities. Training and developing young, malleable graduates is the secret sauce of consulting firms, just as painstaking attention to design is the secret sauce of Apple.
The bootcamp teaches a number of skills you can turn into superpowers as a PM, while there are others you’ll need to unlearn to be more effective.
What to harness
Follow your hypothesis
When given vast, ambiguous problems in consulting, the journey to the solution is not wading into the great unknown. Instead, you break down the problem into its pieces and formulate a hypothesis that guides the direction of the work. Each hypothesis can then be (dis)proved through data/research.
This approach is very valuable in product because it makes you disciplined about what you have to believe to solve a problem. Being trained to think in this way gives you an edge as it overrides your natural tendency to fall in love with your ideas. The hypothesis-driven approach makes you more rigorous and focused as a PM.
Find the 20% that gives you 80%
You also learn that not everything is made equal. While you can chase down every possible thread, there are a few things that get you to 80% of the answer. Let’s say you’re tasked to improve profit margins for a client. Rather than starting from scratch, you focus on the highest cost drivers, and the opportunity to bring them down.
This translates nicely to product development. There are more problems than your team has time to solve for, so as a PM, you need to prioritize and sequence the most important things to do for maximal impact. Known by many names, including t-shirt sizing or the RICE framework, it comes down to the same idea of figuring out what will be the highest impact for the effort involved.
Be a Google Translator
You’ve been groomed to communicate concisely and to tailor your content to your audience. You know how to summarize takeaways as memorable headlines, and dive into the rich details as needed. You’re fluent in the art of influence through data-informed storytelling.
This ability to fly at a variety of altitudes and get everyone aligned will serve you well as a PM when you work with different teams that speak different languages.
Preserve your growth mindset
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is the habit to seek and give feedback. You get extremely comfortable with feedback because it’s a cornerstone of the consulting bootcamp. Rather than viewing feedback as a threat, you see it as a gift to help you and others reach greater heights.
This mindset will enable you to stomach the many mistakes you’ll inevitably make in your new role, so you can pull yourself back up and grow over time.
What to unlearn
Motion ≠ progress
Consulting is much more about showmanship than real outcomes because the product is a deck of well-formatted slides and the feeling of progress.
But when it comes to building products, slide output is not progress. In fact, the best products are remarkably simple. Building something 10X better isn’t loading it up with 10X more features, it’s more likely the opposite: fewer features, done better.
As a new PM, I would often fall into the trap of creating work to fill empty hands. I thought it was my responsibility to keep the team busy. It took a while for me to internalize that the goal is not motion. The goal is to solve customer problems better than anyone else to create business value.
To do that, it’s important to take periodic breaks from the hamster wheel of launching new things, and think more deeply about the why behind what we do. It’s easy to get so caught up in climbing the hill that we started on that we become blind to the possibility of higher mountains elsewhere.
Break out of the checkbox
As a consultant, you’ve likely arrived by checking off a lot of the right boxes: good grades, good school, good interview polish. Checkboxes, however, limit your thinking as a PM. It locks you into focusing on what fits within a checkbox rather than wandering into promising but uncharted waters.
In product, the most important problems are hard and require non-obvious solutions. Consulting trains you to think logically and linearly, not laterally. It trains you to think that what we need are faster horses, or that Uber replaces taxis rather than displaces car ownership. It may make you an excellent cook, but a mediocre chef.
This is something I struggle with and plan to write about in an upcoming post. But the TLDR is that you need to get comfortable with venturing beyond the familiar and proven. This means being ok with generating random, absurd ideas that may offend your better judgment.
Rather than think “yes but” to every offbeat idea, try “yes and”. It also means being ok with the reality that you may not have all the answers. Learn to facilitate and draw out ideas from others.
Fight analysis paralysis
As a consultant, you deliver the deck but you don’t bear the responsibility of making tough decisions for a business. As a PM, you will need to make more decisions than you’re comfortable with. If you drag your feet, you will quickly become the bottleneck for your team. Instead, learn the type 1 vs. type 2 framework that Jeff Bezos pioneered.
Type 1 decisions are one-way doors — they are not reversible, and deserve thoughtful consideration. Type 2 decisions are two-way doors. Don’t like what you see? You can back out. Most of us develop paint every decision with the Type 1 brush, losing out on the opportunity to learn faster.
You may pride yourself on great slide craftsmanship. But the colors, fonts and styles are usually picked from a fixed palette. There are far greater degrees of freedom in the look, feel and usability of a product. Of all the new skills I learned as a PM, design has been the most foreign of them all — it really feels like picking up a new language.
While design is not your role per se, you will become much more effective as a PM when you develop an understanding and appreciation for how visual and interaction design can make or break a solution.
Nothing beats working with a great product designer who can show you the ropes of visual hierarchy, contrast, micro-interactions, and more. Barring that, it’s worth picking up some literature that opens your eyes. Don’t Make Me Think is a classic and always worth a re-read.
The basic principle of design ties back to a tenet of consulting: don’t ever make your customer feel stupid. There are also compilations of design best practices and inspiration that can uplevel your intuition and pattern-matching.
The transition of making slides to building products has been a major quality of life upgrade for me and many others. It also taught me that when you make a fresh start, you are not just starting from square one.
You get to take everything you learned in the past and apply it to a new domain. The frustrating moments you experience today will help you make better decisions tomorrow.
If you’re a consultant looking to make the transition, I hope you find this guide encouraging. Let me know what else you’d like to hear about. And if you’ve already crossed that bridge, congrats and welcome to the club!
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Thanks for reading!