As a Product Manager, we all have very close ties to our product — in some ways it’s our metaphorical baby. And like any parent, we tend to focus on the good parts of our product — the problems it solves, the efficiency that it provides, the benefits that everyone who uses it gets to avail themselves of. Unfortunately, the inverse of that is also true — we also tend to overlook the areas in which our product doesn’t quite meet our customers’ needs, where it barely misses the mark in competitive comparisons, and where it marginally loses out when compared side-by-side with other offerings.
And when these things are pointed out, some product managers immediately turn defensive — saying things like “they just don’t understand” or “they’re not getting the right training” or even “sales doesn’t know how to position”. Unfortunately, all of those things are actually your problem to solve, and sometimes you’ve got to accept some lumps in order to figure out where your biggest opportunities to improve actually lie.
It’s Your Product, Warts and All
I’ve been fortunate enough in my career that I’ve often inherited the work done by others, so approaching it with a critical eye and identifying its limitations and opportunities has come rather easily to me. But I’ve also built product from the ground up, nurtured it through the alpha and beta process, watched actual UX testing on my designs, and birthed that product onto the world. And throughout each stage, negative feedback has come my way — card-sorting exercises where nobody understood the categories themselves; user testing where people couldn’t see the obvious menu item right in front of them; pre-demos at trade shows of the newest, coolest thing that were met with yawns and disinterest.
And those things hurt. Badly, sometimes.
But rather than counter those objections with my own assertions that I had the right idea, and everyone else was just dumb, I used by rational mind to stop myself from that emotional response and to assess what I was actually seeing. These are the people to whom the product will be sold; these are the people who will actually be using the product to solve their problems. Just because I think something is clever and obvious, if it’s neither clever nor obvious to the people I’m presenting it to — maybe I’m the one who messed up.
You can’t only own the good parts of the product — you can’t only do the fun and clever things that make people smile. You have to accept that sometimes your product is ugly. Sometimes your product doesn’t work. Sometimes users get frustrated and upset with your product.
And therein lies the gold mine of future improvement.
Managing Internal Disappointment
Another part of our job that often results in defensive responses is feedback that we get from Sales, Marketing, or even upper management, “pointing the finger” at the product, the product team, or even the development team for “failing” to somehow meet the needs of the market or the customer. Often, this comes as a direct result of randomization or lack of strategy that is supposed to be “magically” fixed by the product team and the Product Manager. And, because it’s coming from people who are supposed to support your efforts, and understand the challenges in the market, it’s often some of the hardest feedback to take.
But, take it we must. It’s almost axiomatic that a Product Manager will be blamed when the product is deemed to have failed, but never be rewarded when the product is deemed successful. And, ultimately, that’s a fact of the job that every Product Manager is going to have to get used to. It’s not “fair” but that’s not the point — the best Product Managers are the ones who are silently evangelizing for their product and their company, and passing the credit for success on to those doing the heavy lifting. The buck stops at the PM, for good or for ill — and we take the lumps so that we can know where to refocus our efforts.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this whole scenario is that the feedback is rarely directly actionable — because it’s largely an emotional response, and many of the factors that led to the situation were actually under the control of the people complaining about the outcome. But, as a PM, our goal is to build our social capital — so we have to take this feedback in, and redirect the emotions toward finding a solution rather than continually restating a problem. Listen — carefully — to what’s being said and what’s not being said. Use your Active Listening skills to understand where the feedback is really coming from, and — most importantly — table the discussion so that you can propose or facilitate a solution later. That could be an hour later, it could be a week later — but you need to let the emotions be expressed, then separate the problem-solving from the problem statement. Nothing provides a better source of equilibrium than a little bit of time and a lot of perspective.
Criticism Is An Opportunity to Learn
Ultimately, this is the lesson we should all take away from this — when someone provides us with feedback that’s critical of our product, our approach, or even ourselves, we should always take a moment to assess whether that feedback is useful to us in some way. Perception is reality to a very, very large extent — and if the perception of the product (or the Product Manager) is one that’s not what you want or need it to be, then that’s a problem that you need to work on solving.