Most Product Managers have, at one time or another, heard the apocyphal quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” And when we hear the line, we laugh because there’s no way that we would do such a thing — the “faster horse” is a fictional thing that we’d never actually spend out time and effort working on. We slap each other on the back, smile, and then go back to our office where all too often we return to working on the “faster horse” that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking is innovative and fresh. It’s an unfortunate fact that much of what we do really is just delivering faster horses, giving our customers what they say they want (or worse, what sales tells us they say they want), and not digging deep enough to uncover the real need, problem, and desire that’s driving the request.
There are a lot of different hats we wear as Product Managers, which means that there are a great many opportunities for us to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right people. But the inverse of that is also true — by virtue of wearing so many hats, there are a lot of opportunities for us to do the wrong thing, at the wrong time, for the wrong people. These anti-patterns have a tendency to sneak up on us and bite us when we’re least expecting it, and therefore least prepared for them. But by being aware of them, we can keep our eyes open and try to avoid them if we spy them sneaking up on us in our rear-view mirror. This is far from an exhaustive list, but I’ve compiled five mistakes that Product Managers often make that set us up for almost inevitable failure.
Awhile back, I answered a question on Quora about behaviors that indicate that someone may be a bad PM; since I’m in all-day sessions this week in a sales kickoff, I thought I’d re-share these thoughts here on the Clever PM blog…
- Dictators, not Facilitators
This behavior shows up across the board, from the sprint planning sessions to meetings with stakeholders. This kind of PM is so absolutely certain that what they want is the “right” thing that they ignore input or patronize people during discussions, even when good points are being made. They also tend to dictate to the teams what’s going to be done, rather than facilitating discussions of scope, level of effort, and general team morale. The biggest consequence of this is that their meetings take forever, because nobody else is motivated to solve the problems in front of them.
- Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
I’ve typically seen this from PMs who originate from the development side of the business, or who are trained project managers trying to take the next step into strategy rather than execution. The problem is that they’ve spent so much time doing that they have trouble thinking. This typically shows up with too much focus and micro-management of the development teams that they work for, as well as an “order-taker” mentality, where someone else in the company winds up defining the strategy, and the “PM” winds up just executing, based on that input.
- I’m the Customer, Right?
This is a trap that many PMs fall into every now and then, but when it’s more often the case than not, it becomes a major problem. It’s even more painful when the person who is making these decisions really doesn’t have the UX chops that they think they do. There’s a reason there are UX professionals out there, folks – and if you think that just because something works for you it will work for your end user, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. It’s important that you remember that you’re only a proxy for the user – if you lose that perspective, you will fail to be an effective product manager.
- Too Much Responsibility, Too Soon
It’s tough to determine when someone is ready for the kind of responsibility that a “true” PM should have – here I’m talking P&L responsibility. The kind of person who succeeds here is someone who has enough business experience and maturity to know how to discuss, debate, and politic within the company without sacrificing their dignity and core goals. If you pick someone who comes into this role too early in their career, they go one of two ways — they either become a sycophant for more “powerful” people in the organization, or they piss off everyone around them and never build the social capital needed to be a good PM.
- So What? Being a PM is a Breeze!
No, it’s not – it’s hard work. And there are some people who come from other disciplines, who have only seen how PMs work from the outside, who think that all that’s really needed is to come up with cool ideas and get people to do them. This PM tends to be superior, condescending, and not really “get” the fact that there are actual users out there who should be talked with and understood before doing something “cool” that nobody ultimately cares about. I tend to see this a lot in startup cultures that are very development-driven, since developers always like to play with new things, whether they’re really useful or not – and the lack of maturity that this type of PM has plays perfectly with the dev’s desire to play with things, rather than deliver business value. They usually wind up being development puppets, unless someone steps in and helps them learn how to be a good PM.
The good news is that all of these things can be corrected, with a little bit of training and a whole lot of humility. If you find yourself doing these things, step back and take a breath. If you see your PM doing these things, take a few minutes sometime out of band to provide them with a little constructive feedback.
This is a post that I originally published last month in coordination with my friend Molly Lindblom, principal strategy consultant at Business Transformations. I hope you find it just as interesting as her readers did…
Amazon.com is pretty much world-famous for their customer-centric approach. Product Managers who want to build something new are supposed to start with their press release for the launch, and work backward from there. There’s no PowerPoint allowed, just written user goals and statements of purpose and goals, from which the product evolves to it’s launch. It seems that Jeff Bezo’s customer-first strategy is the be-all, end-all of Amazon’s success, and works brilliantly.
Except when it doesn’t – let’s consider this an analysis of the exception proving the rule, shall we?
There are a lot of things that Product Managers can be accused of “doing wrong” when it comes to our daily jobs. As a wise mentor once told me, if there’s not at least one stakeholder upset with you, you’re not doing your job right. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re without fault.
If we’re honest with ourselves, Product Managers can often wind up doing things that unintentionally set us apart from the teams with whom we work. Often, this results in an increase in randomization and a decrease in the trust that we’ve worked so hard to build and maintain with those from whom we need things on a constant basis. One of the requirements of leading through influence is that we are mindful of how we are approaching our daily duties and what impact our decisions are having on others around us.