The secret product manager skill no one ever talks about

Published Sep 22, 2021

Faced with an ever-growing list of demands, decisions to make, and stakeholders to satisfy, how does a product manager (PM) avoid making mistakes?  

You don’t.

Mistakes are part of the learning process. However, there is a secret PM skill that you can utilize to make fewer mistakes and to thrive in your communication and collaboration. The secret PM skill that no one ever talks about is situational awareness.  

Situational awareness is being keenly aware of your surroundings. As PMs, we have much to be aware of: the problems customers face, competition, existing and modern technologies, business and product strategies, the market, analysts, etc. The list goes on. 

We’re forced to be situationally aware to a degree, but this doesn’t mean we’re great at it. This skill also applies tactically in your day-to-day negotiations and collaborations.  

A PM must be situationally aware. Observation alone is passive and reactive. Situational awareness is active, proactive, and preventative.  

For example, imagine you are traveling to one of your favorite destinations. You decide to visit a landmark that you have never seen before. Upon arrival, you observe, enjoy, and make decisions that lead to an outcome—having a wonderful experience. Being situationally aware goes deeper. Before arriving at your destination, you ask yourself, is the timing right? Are there others who have been there before? Is there knowledge that you need that could improve your current or future experience? You are proactively trying to comprehend what has gone on, what is going on, and in many cases, what will go on. Comprehending at a macro and micro level gives you a fuller vision.  

Being situationally aware is a critical, yet often overlooked skill that will enhance your decision-making and communication success across a broad range of situations.  

Communication skills are not enough

You can be the best communicator in the world. But, if you are not situationally aware, your message may not fully resonate. You may miss an opportunity to bring clarity or focus to a situation. Biases can also get in the way.

Whether speaking with sales, customers, executives, or co-workers, the more you know about what is going on in their sphere of influence, the more on point you will be, the more value you will bring, and the more trust you will earn. Situationally aware PMs leverage this skill to communicate the right message to the right person(s) at the right time.  

How to be situationally aware

First, understand what it means to be situationally aware. It’s not time spent assessing everything. It’s more about thinking holistically and intentionally about the sphere in which you are about to enter. It’s also thinking about who will be in the situation, what their motives are likely to be, and the relative power differences between these stakeholders. Awareness informs and enhances discernment. Situationally aware PMs advance their careers, but also deliver a more resonant message with the various stakeholders they interact with. 

 Second, practice. You do not need to spend hours practicing. Simply get in the habit of asking yourself the following questions: 

  • What do I really need to know about this situation? 
  • What kind of situation am I in? 
  • Who do I need to speak with who might have already experienced what I am going to experience? 
  • What do we not know that we need to know? 
  • What information is missing to complete the full vision?
  • What does an ideal outcome look like for this situation? What is most important for these stakeholders? 

Third, review previous interactions to better understand how to prepare for future ones.  Retrospectives aren’t just for engineering teams.   

If you’re aware of your customers and what they’re talking about, you can easily incorporate their voice into your efforts. If you are aware of what is going on in the sales cycle, you can prevent downsells and articulate the future your customers will be looking for. 

Here are a few scenarios of how a situationally aware PM would communicate.  

Putting this skill into practice

Scenario 1 

An important customer is about to downsell. They have asked you to join a call since the feature they want is over the area you are responsible for. 

The average PM will either accept or reject the call based on certain criteria or judgments. Assuming they take the call, they will do some research or none.  

The situationally aware PM prior to the call will make it a point to speak with the customer’s CSM or sales rep. They will request an overview of the customer’s business, what’s important to them, how they get value out of your product today, and who the stakeholders are, and their perspective.  If they cannot get the CSM or sales rep, they will ask themselves questions to comprehend the environment they are about to walk into. Once this context or understanding has been achieved, the situationally aware PM goes into a deep discovery to learn why the customer wants this feature. They ask: 

  • What are the business drivers?
  • How does it fit in with their existing process?
  • Is there a different way to meet that need with existing capabilities?   

 They convey awareness in the way they speak: “Thanks for the feedback. Other customers have also expressed their interest in this feature, and we can see why. We understand how building feature X would save a lot of time for your company. Right now, we are focused on solving X, Y, Z so that we can unlock A, B, C.” 

Scenario 2 

A Vice President of Sales asks you and your development team to move an item up in priority.  

The average PM might get nervous or concerned about pushing back to the VP. 

The situationally aware PM will pause and think. They will use this opportunity to gain more context on why the VP wants to see a change in priority and then act accordingly. 

Knowing they will likely have to say no, they use language that shows awareness: “This is a strong idea for a new feature, one we have actually considered (or that we’re currently weighing) as a possible addition to our product. However, it is not something we are able to move up in priority now. Here is why and why our focus is elsewhere currently. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”  

Why this skill is “secret” 

Because you never hear anyone talk about it.

It is an intrinsic soft skill that is often overlooked. Yes, you need to be able to articulate the product vision and the what and why to build. You need to be able to get people excited about the future and to be able to communicate well with designers and developers. However, the less situationally aware you are as a PM, the more prone to error you will be. Focusing your mind’s eye on comprehending the audiences, the products, and the circumstances you are placed in, the more you will know what to say, how to say it, and most importantly what to do.  

Situational awareness is about comprehension, perception, and anticipation. This also extends beyond you personally and applies to your team, your department, and your organization. Those who do not practice this skill are at risk of making unnecessary mistakes.