Product Manager – Translator Extraordinaire

My friend and colleague Stacey shared this with me. She writes, Universal_translator Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I am struck by the number of people who speak multiple languages fluently. On one particular trip, I was in the Brussels airport. The ticket counter agent was speaking at least 4 languages – and she knew them so well that she could quickly switch between them. She’d get someone checked in using French, then turn around and answer a quick question in German. She spoke to me in near perfect English, and as I was walking away I heard her speaking Spanish (or perhaps Portuguese) to another passenger. For awhile, I would kind of beat myself up over this -- my Spanish is pretty rusty, and I would definitely not say I’m fluent. I often wish I knew at least one other language – it’s so much more personal to greet people in their native tongue, rather than expecting the whole world to speak English. Upon further consideration, I decided I was being too hard on myself. After all, don’t we Product Managers translate constantly for our organizations? I may not know French, German, Chinese, Flemish, or Hindi – but I do understand Sales-speak, Development-dialect, Promotions-patois, and Operations-oracy. We do translations all the time. The agile product manager is skilled at understanding each member of the team, so they can translate for others. When Sales says “If I could only get this feature in the release, I’d close this deal,” they actually mean, “I feel like I’m losing here, and surely it cannot be my fault.” The Product Manager’s job is to help the team understand, and to keep them focused on their current work. If a Sales person makes a statement like that directly to development, without any translation, the team might believe the rhetoric, and quickly switch to satisfying one sales person. The Product Manager needs to help everyone see the market clearly and objectively. When Development says “we’re delivering a new architectural layer that will dynamically expose all data elements”, the Product Manager needs to intercept, and ensure that the Promotions team understands the benefits of the release, rather than the technological miracle that happens under the covers. The biggest battle in doing this translation is to give ourselves a moment to think. Where did the statement come from, and who else needs to understand it? Think about the Development explanation from above – they are speaking from their very technical viewpoint. Promotions, however, needs to understand the benefit to the buyer and/or user. Early on in my career, I did a lot of this translation on the fly. Later, I learned that much of this translation can be ‘canned’, by anticipating the needs of each department and communicating to them so that their primary concerns are placed front and center. In the case of Promotions, positioning is the preferred method of translation – we use positioning to move us away from the technical, into laser-focus on the market’s problems and our solutions to those problems. We can do that translation up front, so the Promotions team can continue to focus on the benefit, without getting distracted by Development details. The secondary benefit is that we don’t have to spend quite as much time being personally involved in reviewing early versions of the Promotional artifacts. In fact, with a good positioning statement, MarCom is free to operate independently – creating high impact promotions with minimal daily involvement by the Product Manager. We translate for our teams every day. When we focus on that necessity, we can do some of the work up front, and ensure that each member has what they need to be really good at their job. In turn, we can continue to create, market, and sell current products effectively…while we return to the market, analyzing its problems and prioritizing requirements for the next big thing.
Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was a founding instructor at Pragmatic Institute, a role he held for more than 15 years before he left to start Under10 Playbook. In his return to Pragmatic Institute, Steve supports the complete learning path for product teams, ensuring they are fully armed for success. 

Over the course of his career, Steve has helped thousands of companies and tens of thousands of product professionals implement product management processes. He has worked in the high-tech arena since 1981, rising through the ranks from product manager to chief marketing officer. Steve has experience in technical, sales and marketing management positions at companies that specialize in both hardware and software. In addition, he is an author, speaker and advisor on product strategy and product management.


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