Training Banner

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lies product managers tell themselves (Prickril Edition)

I enjoyed Mark Silver's post on the Spechtechular blog on the lies product managers tell themselves. Let's face it, product management is normally a grind. We shouldn't be too hard on ourselves if we tell ourselves a few white lies to help us "get through the night" from time to time. As some of us learned in "The Big Chill", rationalizations are more important than almost anything. ("When was the last time you went a week without a rationalization?").

Mark's post inspired me to do a bit so soul searching. Here are a few ugly and pernicious lies I can now admit I've told myself over the years:

1. I talk to customers all the time so I obviously understand them.

It's self-evident to most product managers that we should be talking to our customers. But let's face it, operational demands back at the lab and unfortunate constraints such as travel budget often make it difficult to engage with customers as often or as deeply as we'd like. This paucity of interaction with customers can create an exaggerated sense of value from the engagement we do have. That means sometimes we find ourselves actually believing that because we had some interaction with them that we really understand them. A few questions that can help us dispel this illusion:
  • Think of a customer contact you have and list their top three professional pains (not necessarily related directly to your product).
  • List the three biggest customer problems your product solves. This one leaves many an overconfident product manager scrambling for an answer when they're put on the spot.
  • Are you talking to customers that are representative of important market segments or just the usual set of "groupies" (folks who love you and your product are perhaps too careful in giving you the feedback you need to radically improve your product).
2. Writing down a strategy is unnecessary because things around here change so often (and I've got a product roadmap!).

Good leaders will tell you that volatility is no excuse for not planning. Perhaps you need to tweak your planning horizon, but defining a vision and set of measurable, supporting objectives is critical and, moreover, one of your key accountabilities as a product manager! Be careful about falling into the trap that your vision and objectives are obvious to every one. You should also be wary if all your objectives are purely financial. Sustaining business success in the world of software will typically require more than short-term margin. Consider your reputation as a though-leader and your desired impact on the markets you serve. Shouldn't you define related objectives? BTW, your roadmap should be a delivery-centric expression of your strategy; it is not the strategy itself! Structurally, I like to define strategy using OMG's Business Motivation Model. This spec is, for the most part, undiscovered gold.

3. I'm extremely busy so I'm obviously getting a lot done.

Product managers are infamously busy people. I believe there are few (if any) other roles that stretch a person in so many different directions, e.g., functional vs. technical, tactical vs. strategic, inward- vs outward-facing. The shear volume and breadth of work means that we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that all this activity actually represents progress. Here's a simple exercise to help cut through "the fog of activity": Look at your calendar for the week and identify everything you're doing that has clear strategic importance. If you're not doing something strategic every day, consider reevaluating your priorities and asking yourself why your investments in your most important resource, time, are so tactical.

4. Everyone seems happy at the lab, so things must be going well for the product.

It's so easy for us to get lulled into a false sense of security during those sometimes rare periods of calm at the lab. Things are going swimmingly with development, executive leadership is happy with developments (or distracted with bigger priorities) and even the quality manager, who had been disrupting your sleep for months, seems content. It is at these times that successful product managers reflexively, even compulsively, assess what's going on "beyond the firewall" to make sure all this calm and contentedness is well-deserved. You should be asking yourself if you're getting regular, high quality information from the outside world about sales, customer satisfaction and other meaningful KPIs.

5. There are million reasons my product isn't performing like I expect it too, none of which have anything at all to do with my poor design, strategy or execution.
Much like a restaurant owner who can think of a million reasons why diners are scarce on a given evening ("There's an ice dancing special on TV tonight and Mars is in retrograde."), it is easy for us to surmise reasons why our product isn't performing at the level we expect. The hardest to accept is that we are simply not delivering what the market expects. This mismatch may be a product of simply not understanding the problem space sufficiently or failing to design the right solution. We might not have a strategy (see point 2 in this post) that is focusing our efforts on winning based on an explicit set of objectives we define. When your product is under-performing, focus you efforts on discovering why and addressing it, not concocting elaborate excuses and staying the same path. 

Lies Worthy of Honorable Mention

  • My product offers enough functionality to really address my customers' pain.
  • I'm clearly delivering what the market wants, not just what appeals to me.
  • Every roadmap pitch I've ever made to execs. :)
So what do you think? What are the biggest lies you've told yourself over the years?

You can get more information on my consulting and training offerings on my site,

No comments:

Post a Comment