Alex's Place

Leverage and Empathy for PMs

Oct 1, 2020

Empathy is the killer skill for Product Managers, and it’s sorely missing right now

Tired: decision frameworks, scrumban board, how to do a design critique, cut down on meetings

Wired: high leverage Product Management, building a listening network, strong lines of communication, practicing empathy

Empathy is the next big competitive advantage.

People are starting to recognize this. Here’s a Substack exhorting VCs to start practicing their empathy muscles, as the power in the Valley is starting to shift over to founders. The US is in a big fucking mess because of a lack of empathy.

Product Managers need to learn what empathy means, how to use it on the job, and fast. Here’s why:

What Empathy looks like for PMs, in a practical sense

Here are some examples of PMs practicing Empathy on the job:

Empathy enables high-leverage Product Management

Think about it this way: Most work happens when you’re not looking

If your team is 5 folks: 1 PM, 1 Designer, and 3 Engineers, then at least 80% of the thoughts that are directly applicable to the Product are not yours. If you want to count everybody else who has relevant insight—Current Users, Prospects, people on the Sales, CS, Account Management, and Marketing teams—99% of the thoughts relevant to your feature are from others.

Your success in nurturing your feature to market is directly correlated to how many of those thoughts and ideas you can induce from others. This is what we call leverage, and empathy is the key to unlocking it.

With empathy you get the most points of view at the table. Not just Design and Eng. I mean CS, Sales, Ops, Users, random people on the street. Your goal is to increase the number of moments where you get an insight that make you sit back and go “whoa, how the hell did we miss that?”

When we don’t practice Empathy, people get upset, we end up in more meetings to “align”, and we lose our high-leverage Product Management

A vicious cycle starts to form when we don’t practice Empathy. When this happens, our teammates feel unheard, they drift, and we have to call a meeting to realign. In these meetings, the PM doesn’t practice Empathy, so folks feel even more unheard.

Lack of Empathy is a shortcut to delays, scope blowup, and employee churn.

Product Managers are uniquely situated to spread empathy around an org

  1. The PM role is inherently cross-functional
  2. The PM role has cachet

You must have both of these if you want to build out a skill that is not obviously a “hard skill” (e.g. SQL). It’s rare in business, and so sometimes in a heated discussion practicing NVC can come off as “what are you trying to pull?”

Wrapping up

In this essay we talked about what practicing empathy looks like for PMs. We talked about why it’s important, and why PMs are uniquely situated in the org chart to start pushing this practice.

PMs often talk about empathy for our Users. Something that often falls by the wayside in the day-to-day crush of work is empathy for our teammates. If you’ve ever worked in a place where everyone was firing on all cylinders, and the place was humming, I’d bet that folks there were fluent in empathy. And for companies where things just didn’t feel great, that’s the first place I’d start troubleshooting.

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