The really hard thing about building great products

Hanna-Mari Kirs feels that we need to talk more about the soft skills that are necessary to lead and manage teams.

Hanna-Mari Kirs feels that we need to talk more about the soft skills that are necessary to lead and manage teams.

By Hanna-Mari Kirs, Product Manager & Engineering Team Lead at Monese.

I’ve been in various product-related roles for the past 5 years, helping to build the world’s most inclusive banking service at Monese. A few months ago I wrote an article on Medium about how I became a Product Manager and the challenges I’ve faced along the way, learning on the job. I argued that Junior Product Managers often lack an adequate support network, both inside and outside the companies they work at, that would guide them through their initial hurdles and help them avoid rookie mistakes.

At the end of the article, I called upon product people to give me feedback on what have been some of their biggest challenges while building their careers in product. Although Product Management is such a diverse field with multiple ways of entering it, I was curious to know if there was a common thread running through our experiences. And indeed, almost 70 responses later I started to spot a pattern.

You know these Venn diagrams that are always used to describe Product Management as the cross-discipline between business, UX and technology?

Well, based on the responses I received from product people of all shades (Product Managers, Product Owners, designers, analysts and engineers) and backgrounds (from classic Computer Science or MBA-educated to Art History and Dentistry majors turned PMs), it became clear to me that the Venn diagram is missing a critical element.


The Human Element

As I was going through the responses to the questionnaire, I realised what the product people are challenged by the most are not the tools or the tactics of building products as I had initially assumed.

Sure, there were the ever-present hurdles of adequately prioritising feature developments, coming up with a product strategy and building a roadmap, understanding data and making accurate predictions and even implementing Scrum.

Yet while these varied from person to person, the one thing that echoed through almost all of them was some form of ‘how to build products with other humans’.

“Shifting focus from PM duties to managing a team of PMs,” one person wrote. “Managing an outsourced team in India,” another said. Some variation of office politics came through in more answers than one, as did expectation management, handling pressure from other teams and being taken seriously.

One of the most popular ones, though, was managing up, sideways and in diagonal, with difficult team members, external stakeholders (such as enterprise customers) and a moody CEO with a habit of changing their mind and insisting their ideas be put on the roadmap immediately (I see your knowing smirks) being the most prevalent challenges.


I couldn’t help but wonder if we haven’t forgotten about a deeper human element that runs through our responsibilities as product leaders.



We’ve Got The Customer-Centricity Down

To be clear, I’m not arguing we don’t consider the human element at all. I do believe that the product community across the globe is doing great in putting the customer first when building products.

Just look at the whole Product Track at Refresh and it becomes immediately clear that to build a successful product, it’s not enough to just build a cool brand. You need to really understand your customers’ needs and build your product around solving their problems. The UX circle of the diagram seems to be well taken care of.


But what about the needs of the people on your product team? It seems to me, based on the responses to my question, that product leaders across all industries are struggling with what is, in my opinion, the most crucial part of building any product - managing our relationships with the people building it. And it seems we’re not wasting half as much breath on this as we should.


Yes, business, technology, and user experience decisions can influence your product success immensely, but in the end, it’s really you and your team building a product or service for your customers. People building things for other people.

As product leaders, our success depends on our abilities to collaborate and negotiate with, influence and motivate other people both inside and outside our companies. We simply can’t do without the help of others to fulfill our product vision.


People Are Hard

But as the saying goes - technology is easy, people are hard.

We, people, have got our strengths and weaknesses, our fears and aspirations, our goals and egos. Sometimes we overthink and draw the wrong conclusions, and sometimes we’ve just got things to prove without really knowing why. We have kids and mortgages and a lifestyle to keep up - responsibilities. We all want to feel safe and belong and be a part of something greater. All of these things drive our actions every day, sometimes making us, well, rather hard to work with.

All companies consist of people like that. The people on your team who are there to build your product, all have their own motives beneath their professional exterior - and that definitely includes the C-suites.

To be effective as a team, we need to understand that teams consist of people, who have their own strengths and weaknesses.

To be effective as a team, we need to understand that teams consist of people, who have their own strengths and weaknesses.

In my opinion, it’s only wise to recognise that this is one of the most crucial skills on the product leader’s toolbelt - to understand the individuals they’re working with and skillfully manage their interactions with them.

Of course, this also means that to build amazing product teams that build amazing products, we need to understand our own strengths and limitations, as well as those of our team members.

All in all, I believe that when it comes to the product’s long-term success, we need to recognize the people as the most important contributors, and that definitely includes the product leaders.


If your developers are disengaged, it doesn’t matter what the business needs or how much pressure there is to deliver, it just won’t happen.


If your teams have communication issues, you’ll spend your days resolving misunderstandings rather than delivering the next 10x idea. If you’re unable to negotiate with a stakeholder wanting to blow your product scope out of proportion, you’re risking missing deadlines and disappointing your team.

These are really all the things product leaders are already expected to know how to deal with, but as data is my witness, we really don’t. And I’m absolutely one of those people struggling with the human element. It’s not easy and I don’t think it ever will be.

It’s a gradual process. It’s much easier to read up on and implement directly product-related tools and tactics, such as building a roadmap or conducting user research. As we know, managing our work relationships is not exactly as straightforward.

But what I do believe is that we get better at it if we name the skills and acknowledge their importance so that we can start sharing what we know with each other.

There is so much to be gained if we put honing our people skills front and center. Product leaders, regardless of their position in the organizational hierarchy, have an undeniable power to determine a team’s success. We need to be better prepared to take on this responsibility.

I’m thrilled that this year at Refresh, next to undoubtedly amazing presentations about specific tools and tactics we need when building products, we’ll also hear from Wilson Alberto (Farfetch) about what it’s like to step up to be a team lead.

Another one I’m looking forward to is a talk by Alexandra Lung (Pivotal Labs) who’ll be sharing her experiences with becoming a Product Manager and what she’s learned about empowering teams.

I’d also recommend The Humans Strike Back podcast and community by Hotjar, designed to help product people succeed by putting people first. Their topics range from using storytelling to build habit-forming products to caring deeply about your team and practicing conscious leadership.

All of us have developed mechanisms to deal with the people challenges in our work lives, just as we have learned how to define the product vision, manage backlogs and do customer research. We just need to start asking the right questions from one another.


Hanna-Mari Kirs is a Product Manager & Engineering Team Lead at Monese, a mobile-only banking startup aimed at making financial services more accessible globally. She’s also a board member and volunteer at Tech Sisters, a non-profit organisation encouraging and educating women to take on roles in the IT sector.