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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Product Managers and the No-win Situation

Last month I had a coaching session that, I must admit, brought back some rough memories. The "coachee", an experienced, competent product manager, was feeling un-empowered and frustrated and was looking for ways to increase his impact on the product he was managing. After suggesting options from both strategic and operational perspectives, it became clear that he had unsuccessfully tried all the approaches I suggested. Furthermore, he shared that he was caught between two important stakeholders with conflicting goals (addressing installed base vs. new customers). He then shared that many of the people with execution power relative to product development actively avoided any contact with customers. To make matters worse, these people had no customer empathy and weren't concerned that the organization was regularly failing to meet customer expectations (software wasn't making it out of the lab on time or at the level of expected quality).

This conversation reminded me of a time in my career when I had spent months fighting to make a difference in vain. The organization was a mess in terms of accountabilities, we had massive development execution problems and we were being stretched in too many directions in terms of requirements (many from internal stakeholders). I remember how over a weekend I finally came to the realization that I was simply in a no-win situation. We as professionals don't like to talk about it and product managers are especially resistant to throwing in the towel (as they should be). However, I've since realized that the ability to recognize a no-win situation and react accordingly is an important career skill.

There is no checklist for identifying a no-win situation as a PM. Here are some of the symptoms I've encountered:
  • You're accountable for the product but completely un-empowered to set priorities
  • Those who are making decisions about scope and priorities don't understand software development and/or the markets you serve
  • Multiple organizations are vying to drive the product roadmap and the level of management above them is unable or unwilling to grant charter and/or resolve conflicts
  • Product management is staffed by people who are simply unable to do the job (whether from an experience, knowledge or core competency perspective)
  • Product development execution is consistently failing to deliver a quality product on time and no one is addressing the associated issues
  • You are prevented from effectively engaging with customers, sometimes by the imposition of an intermediary or unfavorable "rules of engagement"
If your organization is suffering from 3 or more of these symptoms and repeated efforts on your part haven't yielded the results you expect, you need to do be honest with yourself about the likelihood of the environment changing sufficiently to give you a fair chance at success. It's important to note that I simply assume that most professionals are clever and, over time, will take reasonable steps to identify key challenges and attempt to address them. Making generalizations about how to handle the realization of your plight obviously isn't possible, but here are few thoughts that I hope help:
  • Realize that some situations are simply so dysfunctional that no amount of heroic effort on your part can change the organization's prospects
  • You are not alone nor the first person to face a no-win professional situation
  • Accepting what is happening and making plans in a relevant timeframe can make a big difference in your career (not just your job)
  • Your career is a marathon, not a sprint -- conserve your energy and passion appropriately
This is a tricky topic. As I said, product managers tend to be the last folks to accept that they can't overcome the challenges before them. While it's an uncomfortable predicament to find oneself in, losing years tilting at windmills only to ultimately fail and, even worse, be blamed for the failure is a much worse fate. On a hopefully more constructive note, here is what I consider a reasonable way to approach situations in which you don't have the influence you feel you need to realize your and the product's potential:
  • Identify and analyze the key obstacles in your way (in priority order)
  • Identify the minimum set of conditions that must change for you to be successful
  • Make reasonable efforts to bring these obstacles to the attention of those who can help clear them and make a genuine effort to be part of the solution
  • Continuously assess the realistic chances of your and the organization's overcoming these obstacles
  • After honest reflection, plan accordingly, including finding an environment in which you can have greater impact (and ultimately be happier).
What's your experience? Have you found yourself in a no-win situation as a product manager?

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