✍️ Focus on written communications as a PM

Tired of Zoom calls? Try writing instead.

2020 has been a bit weird, to say the least. Businesses and workers all over the world are just starting to get to a new steady state of how they do things, as we get close to the end of 2020. In this issue, I talk about why it’s important to be really good at written communications, as a PM. Communication skills are naturally crucial for any successful PM, as the role demands continually talking with many stakeholders, and many different types of stakeholders. But all too often PMs overly and incorrectly focus on verbal or face-to-face communications. They rely on it as a crutch, to their detriment. Being forced to work remotely this year has highlighted and even exacerbated this problem. PMs suddenly feel like they aren’t effective. Many folks have slowly adjusted to the way they work. And the initial shock is over. So this issue also gives some practical tips on how to build good written communications skills and principles that you should employ, even if at some point in the future, you return to the office.

Prefer async written communications

Just like verbal communications, there’s many ways to communicate in written form. In this issue, I don’t get into which ones are appropriate for which use cases. But there is a general principle. Prefer async communications first. If you find yourself wanting to Slack someone for feedback on a potential new feature, there’s probably something wrong with your product development process. The design of Slack demands someone’s attention immediately, and encourages them to respond as soon as they see it. Instead, prefer using issue trackers / project management tools first. Also use documents and comment threads to facilitate communications. Think about how to organize your work around async interactions, instead of having a full day of Zoom meetings.

Scalability in push communications

A large part of PM communications is pushing updates, especially to folks in departments that may not be directly collaborating with you, but nonetheless require a constant flow of updates. It’s just not feasible to host many Zoom meetings, and verbally deliver updates. Written communications is infinitely scalable. You can prepare a single write-up, a single document of updates, and share that widely.

There’s a misnomer that verbal communications is better. That it’s better to share information in person. There’s certainly some benefit to face time and to invite real-time feedback. But in general, teams often over-index on these abstract benefits. Practically, most of the interactions and decisions that happen in a typical organization are actually boring. And those are better delivered in written form. If necessary, you can even take a hybrid approach, and record a video to be widely distributed. But written communications are more easily shared and consumed.

Scalability and specificity in collaboration

People often think that a great way for product teams to collaborate together, is to get into a conference room for a day, and whiteboard out many great ideas. The belief is that just putting people together in a room together will result in great ideas. And so the argument is that co-location and verbal communications is critical for product success, and that a PM should facilitate this. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The must critical piece of collaboration is not co-location and synchronicity of time, but creating the right abstract collaboration spaces and guardrails. It’s about creating the structure for very smart people to effectively contribute ideas, and to move those ideas forward. And it turns out that written communications is one of the most critical pieces of this structure.

With written communications, everyone gets a chance to collaborate. It would be unrealistic to invite everyone to a Zoom call to brainstorm on a topic for a few hours. There’s a few failure modes here. What if you didn’t invite enough people? What if you didn’t invite the right people? What if not everyone is available at the given time? Furthermore, great ideas often don’t arrive “in the moment”. Having multiple threads of async communications, organized in a coherent manner allows many people to think deeply and thoughtfully, before opining themself. It’s a more methodical approach, than trying to force a finite set of persons to try and spontaneously think of some great ideas in a finite space and time.

As a PM, the most relevant benefit of written communications is being accurate and specific. A lot of friction in organizations are people not communicating with each other clearly. They think that if they talk more and have more face-to-face meetings, they will be more “in sync”. The point in business is not to agree on everything. Rather, it’s to have a shared specific understanding of crucial details in order to move forward. As a PM building digital products, this is incredibly important because there are many details that often get lost. Written communications eliminates a lot of that uncertainty, and actually facilitates collaboration much better, consequently.

More thoughtful ideas

Written communications allows people to more thoughtful and detailed. As a PM, your goal is to advance the business via products, in the lowest risk way possible. This means leaning on tried and true product management best practices, while there is a whirlwind of uncertainty surrounding you. It is about trying to mitigate risk by applying as close as possible, the scientific method, in a vastly uncontrolled experiment. Working with customers, a changing market, and different departments in a company is already complicated enough. So you want to employ and encourage written communications to mitigate risk and encourage thoughtful ideas. When you start a written conversation, you are welcoming your colleagues to take the time to write a thoughtful response, instead of having them think on the fly, in an impromptu Zoom session. As a PM, shipping small product iterations quickly is one of the best ways to learn about customers and ultimately create a great product experience. But that relies on careful, thoughtful, methodical, and even at times, slow written communications. Instead of frantically trying to “sync up” with a team over multiple Zoom chats during the course of a week, collaborate over a series of written threads. Organize ideas clearly. Synthesize those ideas. And then move forward.

🤔 What should I write about in the next issue of Product Management 101?

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