03001 Why Is the Soft Stuff So Darn Hard?

When you’re a software Product Manager, using soft skills is critical to success as you work to make things happen between groups and individuals with agendas, perspectives and personality types that are at odds with one another. CEOs and executives find themselves faced with the same challenge. It’s a case of same planet, different worlds, and you’re the lucky one whose job depends upon making those worlds mesh.

Yet the use of these same soft skills is so often ignored and neglected by the management team. It’s easy to forget about them when urgent items such as deadlines, bugs, costs and sales cry out for attention.

Imagine how much better it would be if the software engineers thoroughly understood the requirements that the business consultants submitted, with both sides understanding the limitations of their own perspective while respecting that of their counterparts. Well, if you’re one of the lucky ones who can say this is true of your company today, I’ll lay you money you can easily name other places you have worked where nothing of the sort ever happened.

The price we pay is poorer software, and nobody has the luxury of letting the product fail to achieve its potential, lest the competition pull ahead of you.

So here are a few suggestions to help you harden your soft skills and put them to use for the good of the software product and ultimately your career.


Learn About Personality Types

If you have not already done so, it’s time to read up on the different personality types commonly found among us humans, and to understand how these different types relate to different perspectives, priorities, and work styles. Psychologists have devised several different systems to classify personality, and important aspects of it, such as how we take in new information, make decisions, and take action.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is one very thorough and informative system that helps in understanding communication barriers and mishaps (a whole subject unto itself, see below), accommodating divergent working styles on a team, setting and explaining goals, and motivating others. You can quickly find out more about this by typing “myers briggs type indicator” into a search on Google.com.

A good book that covers a lot of ground is “Type Talk” by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen, also authors of “Type Talk at Work”.

There are plenty of other systems for understanding personality differences that you may find helpful. The first goal is to understand your own personality. It can be an eye-opening experience to put this knowledge to use to help very different individuals work well together.

Study Communication Styles

I don’t need to explain to you the benefits of smooth communication at work and the serious consequences of failing to communicate. A very helpful system that focuses only on communication styles (not personality types) and how to better understand what we are telling each other is LIFO, which stands for Life Orientations (r).

LIFO training courses take you to the next critical step, which is to practice different communication styles that are not native to you, so that you come out of the training better able to communicate, and better able to facilitate communications between, say, a sales rep and a software engineer.

Practice Factuality

This simple principle is something you can begin to put into practice quickly, without learning about personalities or communication.

What practicing factuality consists of is reducing your communication to the simple communication of facts, without including any of your own or others’ judgments in the mix. It sounds easy, but we’re not used to eliminating words like “should”, “must”, “wrong”, “broken”, “better”, and many others like them that put people on the defensive when they think these words are being applied to them or their work.

One formula to follow is to remove most adjectives and adverbs, and to reduce an explanation to what happened (in chronological order) and who did it, and to boil it down to specifics, avoiding generalities. I have seen people get no cooperation when they said: “The Report Writer isn’t working. You’ve got to fix the column sorting.” Things work a lot better if you say: “When I highlighted a column and clicked the up arrow, the column became the first column instead of moving up one position.”

You can begin practicing factuality on a small scale, such as in short, isolated emails, and then as it becomes more automatic, you’ll be ready to use it for extensive conversations, like those ever-delightful requirements definition sessions.

You’d be amazed at how much more positively your information is received when you boil it down to the facts.

Build Soft Skills Into Job Descriptions

If you want soft skills to be valued and put to good use, make sure they appear in the job descriptions of every position involved in cross-functional teamwork. Start by having these skills put in your job description, so that your boss has to think about them and discuss them during your job review.

For example, for a Product Manager, here’s one: “Develop communication skills in order to effectively facilitate requirements discussions between business consultants and software engineers, so that programmers clearly understand the business use and need for each requirement and explain risks and limitations to consultants.”

How about for every programmer: “Develop communication skills in order to thoroughly understand enhancement requests presented by sales and marketing teammates.”

If you make it an official job requirement, it will get more respect.

Be a Missionary

Unless the executive team decides to champion soft skills across the company, it’s going to be up to you to get the ball rolling. Start by discussing improvements in communication and cross-functional teamwork with those on the management team who are likely to be most supportive. After a meeting that went particularly badly, point out (separately and in private) what you saw in terms of differing personalities and communication styles, and how that affected the outcome. Provide some suggestions for better communication next time.

After a meeting that went particularly well, point out how people used their skills with personality differences and communication styles to bring about a successful result.

Over time, more people will come to value the soft skills that are helping their efforts succeed, and you may be able to gain support for formal training in-house. Who knows, you might even be the one to deliver the training. It can only be to your advantage.

Prove Your Point

Use what you learn about personalities and communication to make a meeting or team effort succeed where similar efforts fell short in the past. Then convey to all parties involved (without being heavy-handed – try practicing factuality) how the effort benefited from better soft skills.

Remember the Real Mission

It’s human nature that each department and group of people tends to define its mission and purpose in a way that reflects its daily activities, priorities, and preferences. It ends up that people can’t see the forest through the trees. It helps to remind everyone, and it bears repeating at the beginning of major meetings such as design, planning, or testing sessions, that everyone has a common purpose, and that is to produce a competitive, profitable software product. That is everyone’s real mission, and all departments share it.

Reminders like these, gentle reminders that is, put people into a mindset to cooperate on their common goals.

I Could Go On and On

But I won’t. In future issues, I’ll expand on some of the ideas presented here, like that handy one about practicing factuality. But this gives you a plateful to pick and choose from to get started improving your soft skills, maybe the hardest skills of all to improve.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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