Slack Product Lead on Product Meets Improv #2

One constant about being a product manager is you’re never too far away from uncertainty. Furthermore, we deal with a lot of ambiguity and the responsibility for solving complex problems normally falls on product teams. In the improv world, you face uncertainty every time you walk on stage. Most importantly, you have no idea how the crowd is going to react.

With this in mind, it’s important for product managers to understand how to properly engage an audience. Simply put, you need to avoid asking open-ended questions. For example, here’s a sampling of questions that will leave people asking more questions.

  • What are you doing?
  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?

The problem with these types of questions is you’re waiting on people to figure out what to do. As a product manager, your job is to bring clarity to the chaos around you. That said, you may not have all the answers – but you need to empower your product team to think critically when solving problems.

In the world of improv, it’s all about provoking your audience or on-stage partner with a statement that will inspire action.

In other words, you need to focus on making statements rather than adding ambiguity. Most importantly, you need to keep the story moving forward by acting without hesitation and building a solution.

As product managers, we should be in the business of leading with statements that eventually lead us to answer complicated questions. Looking back at the open-ended questions from earlier, here are some ways to “improv” them into action-inspiring statements.

  • What are you doing? — Help me lift this sofa into the truck.
    • Unlike the previous question, I’m telling you exactly what to do – which makes the other person feel useful.
  • Where am I? — Wow, I just love it here in Central Park.
    • This statement provides clear context of where you are and sets up opportunities to explore further.
  • Who am I? — Class, open your books to Chapter 7.
    • Instant recognition of what you’re expected to do.

Just as you would in improv, the best way to keep your product team moving forward is to inspire action. Ultimately, your team will respond to you more effectively with statements about what your strategy could look like or what information you need to proceed.

In the end, you can’t go about solving problems by asking questions that don’t drive people to make decisions.


Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 3


About the Speaker
Ellie Powers
Slack Product Lead
Ellie Powers is a Director of Product at Slack - where she manages a team focused on optimizing the platform experience. Prior to joining Slack, she worked at Google for over 6 years - working on the Chrome browser and Google Play products. In addition, Ellie worked on product teams based in Europe for TalkTalk and VirtuOz. Following internships at Microsoft and Pfizer, she also worked at Microsoft for 4 years in program management. Ellie holds a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently lives in the Bay Area.

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