There are a lot of potential pitfalls that threaten our success as Product Manager — but by far the worst, in my opinion, is falling too much in love with your own ideas, whether those are problems, solutions, or even assumptions about the market and our customers. While I think they take it a bit to the extreme, Pragmatic Marketing does have a point when they say, “Your opinions, while interesting, are irrelevant.” It’s in our nature to make assumptions and inferences from what we see going on around us — to create plans in the face of uncertainty and to identify potential opportunities that others are missing. But we do so at the very real danger of drinking our own product’s Kool-Aid and thinking that we have the one true solution and the one truth in the market. But in reality, that’s never the truth, and we need to check ourselves every single day against this danger.
Remember: YOU Are NOT the User
The single most important thing that every Product Manager needs to remember, and constantly remind themselves of, is that we are not the user.
This is an absolute truth.
There are no exceptions.
I don’t care if you were a user, or if you “use” the product in your day to day life, or if you founded the damn company. The minute you step behind the magic curtain; the minute you have an interest in the product as a business; the minute you start working on the product — you cease to be the user. Your interests almost immediately stop reflecting the day-to-day needs of your users, and rightfully so. As Product Managers, we have to make tough decisions about our products on a daily basis, and these decisions will almost always start to create a gulf between your interests and the interests of the customer and the user.
We must be aware of this and maintain our perspective…and the best way to do this is to ensure that you’re keeping that perspective is by testing your ideas with actual users. Sure, stakeholders are a good proxy for users, and if you’ve got a services team, they’re a decent substitution — but nothing will give you the insights that you’ll get from having real users review your ideas, your mockups, your prototypes, and your solutions while they’re in progress. There’s a reason there’s such a focus on experience in this day and age — and we have absolutely no excuses for not getting real user feedback given all of the myriad options available to us.
Don’t Assume You’re the Smartest in the Room
Another issue that many Product Managers have in relation to their products happens when we take our role as the “voice of the customer” too seriously — and without taking into account the actual voice of the customer (see above!). I’ve worked with a few Product Managers who took themselves and their role way too seriously, and refused to actually listen to what people were trying to tell them, missing the nonverbal cues that indicated the questions they needed to ask to dig deeper, and simply assumed that they were right and there were no other viable options — because they’re the Product Manager.
I hate to break it to these people, but obtaining the title of Product Manager (or Designer, or Planner, or whatever you call yourself) does not endow you with any special mystical powers or abilities. You do not automatically become some Oracle able to divine the future. You are not some wizard capable of creating something from nothing based solely on your will. You’re a conduit for ideas, problems, and solutions that your users communicate to you, through whatever means you have available to extract them.
We are not the only people with contacts in the market; we are not the only people who understand what our users need and want; we are not the only people who are allowed to come up with new ideas. Sometimes the best ideas and the best solutions come entirely out of left field, from people you might least expect.
Identify Your Assumptions and Challenge Them
In my many, many years of being a Product Manager, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest sin that prospective Product Managers might actually not be thinking that they’re the customer. I know, I know — that sounds like a contradiction based on what I talked about above, but stick with me. The fact is, even when we act like we are the user and make decisions or judgments based on that context, we can still correct ourselves if we realize that we’re making assumptions — and challenge those assumptions. This is the most important tool in our belt to correct behavior throughout the organization — but it starts with ourselves. Figuring out when you (or others) are making assumptions, and being very clear about what the basis of those assumptions is, allows us to be diligent in our decisions. It allows us to identify the things that we don’t yet know or don’t yet fully understand. It clarifies the questions that are actually important and separates them from those that are merely interesting.
The better you can be about understanding when, how, and why you’re making assumptions — and to challenge them and validate them with actual users, the better a Product Manager you’ll be and the more invaluable you’ll be to the organization.
And not because you know everything, or because you’re right all the time — because you know how to drive to the correct decisions.