As a remote work product manager, write well

As a product manger, leverage communication

The longer you experience remote work, the more you realize that it’s a forcing function for you to become your best self as a worker. Collaboration, and in particular, communication is no exception. The stakes are even higher for product managers. People often say a PM has all the responsibility, but none of the authority. That is, a PM is the final individual responsible for the success or failure of a product. But in a typical organization, engineers and designers do not report to a PM. They are peers from a human resources perspective. So the way that a PM can really influence the product and the company at large, is through effective communications. That’s a PM’s greatest leverage. And it turns out that remote forces you as a PM to become the best communicator possible.

The primacy of text

In business, people often put a premium on face-to-face communication. The idea is that human interaction is higher fidelity than say, written communication. But upon closer examination, you’ll see that written communication may often be much more important. Many business operations processes are typically documented in various manuals. A company’s day to day operations thus relies on this form of written communication. Unfortunately, this ideal turns into a failure mode in many co-located companies. When a person doesn’t know a piece of information, they immediately ask a colleague, which is an overhead cost. And the information is not written down. It lives in the shared brain network of people throughout the company. This leads to small errors during transmission, which themselves propagate, leading to even more costs. Co-located teams fall into this trap often, since it is so easy to knock on the cubicle next door, instead of reading a manual, much less updating one. For really small teams, the costs are not as high. But as a team grows beyond 10 people, the negatives quickly compound and seriously impact the company’s efficiency.

In a remote work environment, the temptation for these drive-by one-off interactions is significantly reduced, because your colleagues are simply not in your visual range. In addition to being out of mind, there’s also some friction to jumping on a video call, despite the many amazing technologies that have been developed up to now. People can still abuse text-based chat applications for these non-documented interactions. But at least it’s saved in some database the moment you communicate, and it can be easily copied into a long-term storage location, such as a company handbook, wiki, or knowledge-base.

Async demands good writing

As a remote product manager, async communications maximizes your collaboration opportunities. And async demands text over video because:

  • Video is difficult and costly to store, even with today’s technologies. Text is essentially free.
  • Video is hard to cross-link and search, so its value is significantly reduced. Text can be easily hyperlinked and indexed for searching and random access.

Async demands clear writing because confusing writing defeats the purpose of async. If your audience doesn’t understand what you’ve written, they have to ask at least once for clarification, which incurs a round-trip cost.

Async demands concise writing because shorter, high-information content allows for smaller and quicker communication iterations. If you want to communicate a more complex idea, async text is not ideal.

An interesting emergent benefit is that you became a better synchronous communicator. Because you are regularly forced to articulate ideas in clear and concise written words, your brain has a lot of practice to break down complex ideas into smaller constituent parts. And so when you are speaking with a colleague over video chat, you do a better job of articulating and working through difficult concepts.

As a remote work product manager, write well.

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