Product management is a multi-faceted discipline. This makes our work interesting and varied. But it can also make it hard to see which skills we need to develop so we can do an even better job or take on more responsibility. In this post, I discuss balancing product-specific skills with generic product management capabilities. I suggest developing a t-shaped skills profile that ensures that you have the necessary deep skills to progress your product, as well as the broad skills required to systematically deal with common, recurring product management challenges.
Balance Specific and Generic Skills
To do a great job as a product manager or Scrum product owner, you will benefit from two skills sets: a product-specific and a generic one. As their name suggests, product-specific capabilities focus on a specific product or product category. They include a deep understanding of the users with their needs, the competition, and the market trends. They also require you to have a deep knowledge of the product itself, including its value proposition, key features, user journeys, business goals, and KPIs. Finally, they imply an insight into how the company works and how things get done—what the company goals are, which processes are used, and who the decision makers and influencers are. As product-specific skills are crucial, I find that many product people strive to develop these capabilities. But as important as they are, they are not enough.
In addition to deep product skills, you require generic or transferable product management capabilities, such as, effectively capturing the product’s value proposition, segmenting the market, validating product strategy assumptions, selecting the right KPIs, prioritising the product backlog, and analysing user feedback and data. These skills are not specific to an individual product, but transferable. They equip you with the expertise to methodically solve common product management challenges and they enable you to move between jobs and verticals if you wish to do so.
Balancing the specific and generic skills leads to a T-shaped skills profile and makes you a T-shaped product person as the following picture shows. 
The horizontal bar is the ability to effectively apply product management concepts, techniques, and tools to different products in different markets and companies. The vertical bar on the T above represents the depth of related skills and expertise for a single product or product portfolio.
Grow Your Horizontal Skills
Having strong horizontal skills enables you to work in a methodical way and to manage different products in different companies. As these skills form a large set, I like to divide them into three sub groups: strategic, tactical, and leadership capabilities, as the picture below shows.
Strategic skills include the ability to develop an effective product strategy, actionable roadmap, and working business model. Tactical skills help you capture requirements, manage the product backlog, and validate ideas for new features and feature enhancements. Leadership skills enable you to effectively guide the development team and lead the stakeholders, create an inspiring vision, and reach sustainable agreements, to name just a few.
To become a competent product professional, you should strive to develop all three types of skills—leadership, strategy, and tactics. Even if you currently fill a tactical product role, increasing your product leadership and product strategy skills will help with your current job: You will be able to collaborate more effectively with the individual who sets the vision and decides the product strategy and earn their respect and trust.
Additionally, it will enhance your employability, enable you to progress your career and take on a role that includes strategic responsibilities in the future. And competent and well-skilled product people increase the chances of innovating successfully and maximising the benefits digital products provide.
To get started, explore how strong your skills in each of the three groups are. Ask yourself, for example, how much you know about creating and validating a product strategy, about product roadmapping, and business model development. Then focus on those skills where improvements will help you most with your current job. Here are some of the questions it asks you:
- Do you know how to formulate an inspiring vision for a product?
- Do you know how to make effective decisions and generate strong buy-in?
- Are you able to you can carry out systematic product discovery?
- Can you describe different segmentation techniques?
- Do you know what a product strategy is and what its key elements are?
- Can you describe the business model of your product?
- Can you develop an actionable product roadmap that clearly states the specific outcomes your product should create?
- Are you able to select and apply the right KPIs?
- Do you know when and how to review, adjust, and change your product strategy and product roadmap?
- Do you know how to prioritise product backlog items? Can you state different prioritisation techniques and explain when which is most appropriate?
- Do you understand how to validate your product including the user experience and the features? Do you know when to choose which technique?
Develop Your Vertical Skills
Deep product-specific skills are important to make the right product decision and move your product in the right direction. Here are some activities that I find helpful to strengthen this skillset:
- Talk to users and customers at least once per quarter, be it online or onsite. Nothing beats meeting real users, even if you have tons of analytics data at your disposal.
- Regularly collect and analyse user feedback and data using qualitative and quantitative techniques to better understand how people interact with your product and discover opportunities to improve it.
- Use your own product (a.k.a. eat your own dog food). This helps you discover shortcomings and opportunities for improvement, as well as empathise with the users.
- Attend conferences and tradeshows to stay on top of market trends and see what other companies are working on.
- Regularly read trade journals, product reviews, and user forum messages to see what’s happening in your industry and how people respond to your product as well as competing offerings.
- Review the products of your main competitors. This helps you understand if your product is properly differentiated.
- Build strong relationships with the development team, Scrum Master, the product sponsor, and the other key stakeholders. Why not invite the sponsor to a coffee, for example, make time to listen to a concerned stakeholder, and bring treats to the sprint planning meeting?
- Network with your product colleagues. Build a community of practice, for instance, by hosting brown bag lunches to learn more about each other’s products and practices.
- Finally, pay attention to corporate emails, newsletters, and magazines to see if developments in your company affect your product, such as changes in senior and executive management, changes in the business strategy including acquisitions and spin-offs, and changes in the development group.
 As far as I know, my colleague Ellen Gottesdiener was the first person to suggest that product people should be T-shaped, see her article 5 Ways to Recognize a Great Product Manager.
Post a Comment or Ask a Question
“Test competing offerings. This helps you understand if your product is properly differentiated.” I like this tip. It’s important to understand where your product stands in the marketplace, and what your differentiating value props are.
Thanks for your feedback Emily. You may find my post on using the Strategy Canvas helpful in order to ensure that your product is properly differentiated.
In case the product vision and strategy is defined at say the top management level, would that hinder the product owner’s effort in bringing out the desired product. ?
How could the vision and strategy makers be brought in tune with the current product. ?
Hi Rahul, Great questions that are difficult to answer briefly. I generally recommend that the person in charge of the product is also responsible for its vision and strategy. This is particularly helpful when bigger changes are happening to your product, for example, when it is brand-new or young, or when you extend its life cycle, as this minimises the risk that the strategic and tactical product decisions aren’t aligned. To ensure management’s buy-in and understanding, I suggest a collaborative strategising approach in my book Strategize, where the management sponsor participates in strategy creation and review workshops. Does this help?
Awesome post Roman.. Have never seem such a lucid description of T- shaped skills for product managers/owners
Thanks for your feedback Srinath. Glad that you liked the post.
Interesting blog post. I notice that you categorise vertical skills as product related skills/knowledge. This is very restricted to the area you work in and generally won’t transfer between sectors or companies very well.
I was wondering what are your thoughts on technical skills for product owners? Would you consider this a vertical skill set or more horizontal?
I’m at an early stage of my product management career and I’m coming across a lot of job roles that I think I would be capable for which require a BA. As I started my career doing an apprenticeship I actually don’t have a degree. Do you think it would be worthwhile for me to study towards a technical degree in Computer Science?
Hi Aaron, Thanks for your feedback and question. I consider an understanding of software technology, like object orientation, design patterns, machine learning frameworks and algorithms, and development practices such as test-first, refactoring, and continuous integration and delivery as vertical skills: they are applicable to many digital products. Having an understanding of the technologies that are specific to your product is a vertical skill, for instance, Objective-C, Xcode, Cocoa, and UIKit for an iOS app.
If it’s worthwhile for you to increase your technical knowledge depends on the role you play (or want to play) and the product you look after, as I discuss in the post “Do Product Owners Need Technical Skills?“.
Does this help?