As a Product Manager, it’s in our bones to always do the best job possible, to deliver the best product possible, and to satisfy the most customers possible. But what if I told you that by always succeeding, we’re actually hampering ourselves? While it might feel good to hit a home run every time you step up to the plate, you’re probably not playing in the right league. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of complacency, of certainty, of feeling invincible because you never miss a swing — but the simple fact is that if you’re never wrong, you’re playing it too safe and you’re limiting yourself to only what you know that you can accomplish. It takes bravery to step outside our comfort zones, to stretch ourselves and test our boundaries, and to try new things that aren’t guaranteed to be winners. In fact, failure is essential to growth not only as a Product Manager but as a person in general — for it is only in failure that we learn from our mistakes and can adjust to ensure that the next stretch, the next test of our abilities, passes with flying colors. If you never fail, you never grow…
Always Succeeding Means Playing it Safe
Nothing groundbreaking has ever come from playing it safe, from coloring between the lines, from delivering people what you (and they) already know what they want. Sure, we can be successful by playing it safe and never risking any real failure, but is success the only measure by which we judge our achievements? It can be terribly comfortable to do the least amount of work with the least amount of risk for a modicum of success — to satisfy everyone from your stakeholders to your management to your customers. But is anything that safe really going to leave an impression — is it going to make your mark on the world that resounds with glory and praise? Or is it going to result in a consensus that you’re “good” at your job and always deliver what the customers want? Is it our goal to just be “good enough” or should we strive to be “great”? Because true greatness comes from taking chances, from bucking “common knowledge”, from breaking expectations and doing things that test the boundaries of your company, your market, and your product itself. Do you need to do this with everything that you do? Certainly not, but if you never take risks, if you always play it safe, then while you might be “succeeding”, you’re not making a name for yourself that will outlast your efforts in the moment. Always choosing evolution over revolution will certainly keep your paychecks coming on time, but it will never result in promotions to the levels that you might have in plan for yourself.
If You Never Fail, You Never Learn
Most importantly, if we never try something that doesn’t succeed, we never really have any lessons to learn. If everything we do succeeds, what more do we need to know? What skills do we need to learn? What effort do we really have to exert? The answer is simple — there’s nothing that we must learn if we always succeed. We rest upon our laurels, become comfortable in our own little niche of the world. And we stagnate. It’s only through failures that we learn what our limits truly are, where the boundaries of what we can do stretch and break, where we discover how little we might know or how little we can do in some narrow corner of our profession. There are certainly some things that we can learn from success, but those things are confirmations of what we already know and what we already believe about ourselves. It’s mere reinforcement of how good we are, how untouchable we are, how “perfect” we are. The challenge in being a Product Manager comes from trying things that aren’t guaranteed to succeed, that challenge the common wisdom of our companies and our markets, that try to push ourselves, our teams, and even our customers outside of their comfort zone so that we can try new things, so that we can innovate and expand our solutions, and so that we can take a risk that maybe we aren’t perfect and maybe we do have things that we can learn, that we can improve on, and that others have to teach us.
Growth Comes From Exceeding Your Limits
There was a time when I had the opportunity to return to the small town that I grew up in, take a very comfortable job at a respected law firm, and make a six-figure salary right out of law school. The option was tempting, because it was comfortable — it was in a place that I knew, surrounded by people I’d grown up with, in a community that I understood and knew my place within. On the other side of the table was a job with a relatively young company who was looking for people with legal and tech backgrounds to fly to Dallas, TX on an all-expenses paid, multi-month project to learn an entire product from tip to toe and to bring all that back to Bellevue, WA to run a support team. It was a complete unknown, and not at all what I’d trained for the three prior years to do — in many peoples’ minds it was a step backward. But I knew that if I took the job back home, that would be it — I’d wind up staying in the same small town that I grew up in for the rest of my life. I’m certain I would have been successful, and that I would have made a comfortable living. On the other hand, “comfort” wasn’t what I was looking for — I didn’t want to stagnate and see the same place I grew up in day after day, month after month, year after year. So I took a chance, grasped the opportunity that was uncomfortable, that was a risk, that was well outside my comfort zone. And I’ve not once regretted making that decision. Because comfort is a trap for the unwary — it holds you back by coddling you into a feeling of complacency. As a Product Manager, we have to be willing to eschew that comfort, to stretch above and beyond what we “know” and are good at, to try new things and to expand our own limits.
Like the proverbial shark, a Product Manager who stops swimming is a Product Manager who is dead in the water. When you stop taking chances, you stop being a better Product Manager — do things that scare you, test out ideas that might not be right, try things that others tell you will never fly. You owe it to yourself, to your company, to your market, and to your customers to stretch those boundaries, and when you succeed doing that, you leave a mark for the world to see.