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.
There comes a time in every Product Manager’s life when they face adversity and challenges above and beyond the day-to-day administrivia that we struggle with every day. And it’s in these moments, at these times, that we find out what we really believe in, and what we’re really willing to do to stand our ground and push through the barriers before us. This is especially true in organizations going through a transition period — whether it’s growth, changes in ownership or management, or even shifting patterns from front-loaded development practices toward more agile approaches to product development. And it’s not only our values that come to the front when these things happen — it’s the organization’s values that stand out — often in stark contrast to the espoused positions that sound good when things are going smoothly.
What is it that drives these vast differences in behavior, and what can we do to bring the two closer together, especially in times of struggle?
As a Product Manager, sometimes we get so caught up in either the macro or micro concerns of our day-to-day lives that we forget that getting shit done is our primary job. It does no good whatsoever to have our product remain in a constant state of development, with projects that get put on the shelf after being half-complete, in preference for the new hotness over what’s now old-and-busted. As a Product Manager, we’re not only in charge of making sure that we’re doing the right thing at the right time, but also that we’re actually finishing what we start — and that what gets done gets into the hands of the customer as soon as reasonably possible. Iterative development is literally impossible to do within the confines of your four walls; unless you’re constantly releasing a stream of iterative improvements, you’re just not getting it done.
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.
One of the aspects of Product Management that can be really hard for people to internalize and adjust to is just how thankless the job can be at times. When things are going badly, the Product Manager is almost always the first person to shoulder the blame — your requirements weren’t clear, the strategy wasn’t well-articulated, the documentation wasn’t sufficient, you didn’t provide marketing or sales with the proper positioning…stop me if you’ve heard these before. And, when things are going really well, your role winds up falling into the background — nobody notices the facilitating and maneuvering, planning and plotting that backlog, nailing the estimates and schedule.
But it’s not just the fact that there’s no party thrown in your honor, nor that you’re the first one pilloried during the management meeting following a failed release. It’s the fact that all of this negative attention can seep into into our own self-image, and can turn slowly and insidiously into something known as “imposter syndrome”.