June 4th 2020
CTO/Head of Product at @RealBlocks
Transitioning into product management can feel like being air-dropped into a war zone. From the moment you hit the ground there are new people and ideas bombarding you from every angle, and everything seems to be on fire. There is no clearly defined way to reach your destination, but you know you can’t just sit there. For most new product managers starting out, this is a critical moment for your career and the habits you build out as a product manager.
But…why project managers?
I frequently see product people fall into the trap of either doing someone else’s job, or mistakingly spending too much time on tasks that don’t actually help move the product forward. Below I’ll cover some common pitfalls I’ve encountered in my career that lead new product managers to act like project managers. By understanding these pitfalls new product managers will better understand the real value their job is supposed to provide.
Pitfall 1 — Never Creating or Owning a Product Vision
It’s actually pretty simple, if you’ve never heard or explained the product vision to someone, it’s whatever they perceive it to be. From the day you were hired on as a product manager, your product already had stakeholders (surprise!). Sales has been trying to sell features that haven’t shipped yet, the CEO is selling features you haven’t even heard of yet, and clients were promised all this a year ago.
The underlying problem? When there’s not a shared vision, perceived vision leads to perceived product focus, which further devolves into everyone demanding different things for what should be a common goal. This puts a new product manager at a crossroads — do you give into stakeholders and optimize the demands coming in, or is there something else you can do?
An existing vision is easy to go along with, even if you know it isn’t the best one to pursue. Especially if the loudest demands are coming from executives or senior leadership. Presenting new info could make it seem like you’re challenging the status quo, which is uncomfortable.
More critically what happens if you don’t have a North Star (product vision)? For most new product managers, this leaves them searching for a way to gauge their contribution to the company, which leads to the second pitfall…
Pitfall 2 — Mistaking execution for progress
People don’t do well with ambiguity, especially if they don’t feel in control of their destiny or purpose. Maybe you were someone like me who started in product by coming in from an operational role with clearly defined responsibilities and scope. Life to this point has had clearly defined goals, but once you become a product manager your days start to look a lot more like this:
So what happens? Most people will gravitate toward something that makes it feel like they’re adding to the cause. For product managers without a product vision, this tends to results in some of the following behaviors:
- Spending your time prioritizing a backlog with tickets older than your professional career (also known as a Feature Factor)
- Comparing roadmap software because your roadmap is “too big to display in a meeting”
- Writing product requirement documents that rival the length of War & Peace
What’s the problem? Output is a limited-time proxy for progress. If a project manager delivers a project on-time, as spec’d, and no one uses it — they’ve still done their job of delivering something within a specified time. If a product manager does this, they have failed miserably at their job.
So as a new product manager you see the situation you’ve put yourself in and recognize the need to change, but how? The answer is define a product strategy, which brings us to pitfall #3…
Pitfall 3 — Treating the product strategy like a voting exercise
So if a product manager is judged based on company goals, why not simply take the list of requests everyone has and do them in stack-rank order? Sure it may suck, but after a few hours of holding your key stakeholders hostage you should have a nice prioritized list, right?
- Without a unified vision of what is important, feature prioritization becomes horse trading
- What happens when the list ultimately changes? Now you have to update every single stakeholder because there was no cohesive vision
- What happens when the most important thing ships and it wasn’t important? How does that affect your relationship with stakeholders at position 2/3/4?
The problem? People in your company all have different goals, and siloed goals tend to compete with each other. Voting polls or an attempt to ‘magic formula’ your way to a product via a spreadsheet doesn’t create a better product. In fact, voting sacrifices organizational cohesiveness and product strategy for short-term decision making.
A product manager making this mistake will walk away not fully understanding how agreed upon priorities relates to users and products. This is dangerous — if a product manager doesn’t understand why they are building something, neither will the engineers. Sales won’t understand the benefit to their clients, marketing won’t understand how to position it, and the product will ultimately suffer.
So now that we’ve gone over 3 pitfalls, how do we address them?
Solution 1 — Obsess over the problem you’re solving, not the solution to the problem
By finding out the true problem(s) a user is experiencing, you create a commonly understood problem the company is collectively trying to solve, vs. a solution to something that may not actually be a problem in the first place.
You’ll also find that if the problem is well understood, you don’t need to resort to blind feature prioritization or pet projects. Instead, everything becomes a question of whether something adds or detracts from solving the problem at hand. By doing this, you are able to build toward a vision that will live beyond the scope of any single project.
Solution 2 — Communicate in ways that are meaningful to your stakeholders
Product management is very much a game of psychology. It’s impossible for a product manager to deliver any kind of product without a team to execute on the vision. Not only that, but you need to unite a diverse group of people with different talents and motivations toward an ambiguous future state (the product vision). But how can someone unify people with different goals towards a common path?
By understanding a problem, how others understand and talk about the space, and the things they need to be successful, you can start to have conversations with people in a way that is meaningful to them. By showing people you care, you’re giving them a reason to put their trust in you to help them succeed.
But how do you go about communicating in ways that people from different backgrounds can understand? As a product manager this means learning the roles of other people in your organization, understanding what’s important to them, and how your knowledge can help them succeed. This can happen in simple way like:
- Talking through new competitors in the market you’ve done research on to marketing so that they can craft thought pieces
- Letting the business development team know about new companies you’re excited about so they can start seeking out potential partnerships
- Telling sales how your product can drive down costs for certain user groups so they have an unique angle on how to position the product
As a plus, a well-understood problem combined with a way to translate it to different stakeholders can be crafted into a compelling product vision. This is a powerful way to unify people and drive toward a common overarching goal.
Solution 3 — Be ruthless aligning metrics to your product strategy and vision
I chose to pick on OKRs because one of the most important aspects of product strategy is showing stakeholders that you are moving towards some kind of end-state. This boils down to choosing metrics that provide proof that your product strategy is moving you toward your ultimate product vision.
This is challenging because it requires thinking of something that is not only measurable, but meaningful. A good metric should always tie into a meaningful future state along your product strategy. For example, if your product vision is ‘create the largest marketplace for authentic luxury sneakers on the planet’:
Bad metric: Increase traffic to the site by 100%
Why?: Your traffic increases but revenue is flat, so the metric may not support a sustainable growth path
Better metric: Increase sales on the platform by 15%
Why?: Your revenue increases, but customer complaints are up since an increase of counterfeits appeared on the site
Better still: Increase sales by 15% while holding complaint rate flat
Why?: This goal not only moves the company forward (revenue), but also accounts for conditions that could skew actual ‘success’
If you can point to a product vision, a product strategy (increase sales), then a metric that ties those together, you will save yourself hundreds of hours a year trying to get people on the same page. In fact, you may even find yourself with free time since you have given people a single coherent framework where they can best apply their skills to work toward a common goal that matters!
Product management is a hectic field that often feels like swimming through a sea of possibilities and people pulling you in different directions. It’s important that as product managers we not only understand where to prioritize time, but also how to best unify and rally the people around us to collectively achieve greatness. Hopefully this was helpful to anyone out there, and feel free to reach out or comment below with questions/comments. Thanks for reading!