Product Management Fears and how to Face Them

BY Phil Osmond ON FEBRUARY 21, 2019

In general we product people are a courageous bunch, but beyond our confident exteriors can reside a few honest (and I would argue, healthy) fears with which we wrestle, whether we admit to it or not!

I have a secret, not one I talk about often, if at all. Yet it preoccupies me as I commute to work, eat my lunch, or sit in the office… what if I am the only person who struggles with product management? Everybody else has it all sewn up don’t they? Don’t you?! Building the best products, working with the best people, utilising the best processes… I wish I was like YOU!

Well, in reality I am just like you. In reality we all struggle with various aspects of life, relationships and career. And I’d like to think that product people are among the more open professionals out there: we can be honest about our struggles, face up to our fears, and seek wisdom for our weaknesses.

So what are these fears? There will no doubt be different fears for different people, but, in my experience and from observing others, I have noticed three main fears:

  • Fear of conflict
  • Fear of uncertainty
  • Fear of inadequacy

Fear of Conflict

Not everyone fears conflict. There are certainly some people who love a good argument or “robust discussion” and who aren’t shy about making their thoughts known, however forcefully. But this can be a stressful experience for those of us who prefer a calmer, more reasonable and level-headed approach to disagreement – or even fear disagreement altogether!

Unfortunately disagreement is a fact of life, and as product people we must embrace it. Especially when the stakes are high and passionate committed people are working together. Therefore it’s how we handle it which matters – and we do well to remember that not all conflict is bad.

There is a lot of good which can arise through conflict, and the sheer process of strong minds wrestling with each other’s ideas to find the worthy winner. Not only does it bring new ideas or information to the table, it can and will challenge our beliefs and conclusions. This is necessary for a thorough understanding of the decision we are making, the problem we are dealing with, or the opportunity we are pursuing.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, defines trust as foundation of any strong team – the foundation upon which constructive conflict can take place, as a “passionate pursuit of truth or the best possible answer”. It is only on that basis that we can truly commit (even if we disagree), then hold each other accountable and focus on shared outcomes.

I’ve learned over the years to embrace conflict in pursuit of a better product. There are still times when I wince at tension in the room, but I actively strive to stop my previous uncomfortable experiences from colouring the present – and when required fight for the good of my product!

Additionally I try to look constantly for new ways to handle the friction and not to repeat past mistakes. I try to keep the following points in mind:

  • Be an active listener. Actually listen to what is being said, and seek to discern the intent of the other person – instead of merely getting hurt by something that has been said, or spending all your mental energy thinking of something to say which might diffuse the situation. Then you will be in a better position to put forward a meaningful response and head towards agreement.
  • Employ evidence. Bring metrics and analysis to the table. Use objective facts to limit the discussion of unfounded problems or ideas.
  • Remember the context. Some decisions are bigger than others. Big decisions need more effort than smaller ones. For example, do we change the checkout form layout? Needs little wrestling with in my opinion – experiment and see! Do we change the entire checkout flow? Now that’s an expensive job worth considering in depth.
  • Disagree and commit. Even if I don’t fully agree it is often better to disagree, commit, and move on – we can always revisit once the results are in… but don’t hold a grudge!
  • Take it offline. When a discussion or meeting does become heated, sometimes the best approach is to halt the discussion and resume at a later date – usually with fewer people – once all parties have had time to calm down and regain objectivity.

I would encourage you to do the same. Don’t let the fear of a tense atmosphere or a hard conversation a stop you from building the best possible product. There will be times when we need to fight for it!

Fear of Uncertainty

FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Not just in politics or mainstream media, but also in product management.

Don’t let fear of uncertainty stop you from being an effective product person. Handling uncertainty is one of the reasons we have our roles, so let’s embrace it! While you don’t have to be a soothsayer to be a good product person, we have many product discovery tools and techniques at our disposal. They can help us to avoid building a product which doesn’t work, and which nobody will use, or committing ourselves to months of solid development before we see results.

Fear of Inadequacy

Perhaps you’ve never experienced fear of conflict nor fear of uncertainty. Perhaps you have it all sewn up. Well, excellent! I’m really pleased for you.

However, it is my suspicion that fear of inadequacy might be one of the largest but least-acknowledged fears among product people. Kudos to people like MTP’s own Martin Eriksson who embrace this fear as “imposter syndrome” and bring it out into the open.

It’s on that basis I happily confess that quite often I feel like a fraud, or an imposter who doesn’t know what he is doing. Yet experience has taught me -especially since leaving my comfort zone last year – that this is unfounded.

Early in 2018 I left my role as a product manager for a group of online retail brands and joined a young cryptocurrency startup. I felt it was a brave move for me to leave the predictable and familiar for a new emerging industry, swapping traditional retail and manufacturing models for SaaS, and acknowledging there was only a finite runway before we needed to start making money. My journey has not been a smooth one, but throughout my instincts have usually been right, and my training and previous experience have helped me to define the way forward.

So, if you’re feeling the same way can I suggest three ways to help overcome this fear of inadequacy?

1. Get Into a Community

Leave your echo chamber of one and find others in the product community. Regular ProductTank meetups are a good place to start. I find our local Bristol group an excellent source of wisdom, inspiration and general camaraderie – my thanks to Lily, Darwin, Philip, and Irving for making it what it is!

It’s in groups like this we find others to spar with – “iron sharpeneth iron” as the Bible tells us – those who will perhaps (gently) knock off some of our rough edges, or help us refine our thoughts. Be open, share, ask questions, take feedback, and learn.  You’ll see possibilities you’d not thought of and be inspired. You’ll help others, and inspire them too.

We don’t need to suffer alone – instead let’s embrace it together!

2. Don’t Compare Yourself With Others

There is only one you and you’re most qualified to be you. Be yourself because everyone else is taken.

You may not have all the experience someone else has, but you have unique experience and a unique skill / personality combination.

Only you will fit where others can’t! And in the process let those who are more experienced inspire us to grow and develop.

3. Just Keep Learning

Harness your fear and use it to drive your learnings. Let us embrace what we don’t know and use it to increase our breadth or depth of knowledge. Often this can take a degree of humility, but when we are new to a product, or operating with people or problems outside our experience, we are uniquely placed to ask silly questions that others may be too embarrassed to ask.

I find the first few weeks on a new product or in a new business to be the easiest time for “stupid questions”. But at other times, if something just doesn’t make sense, it can be hard to swallow your pride and ask for clarification. But it will only be more embarrassing later when it turns out you’ve delivered something no one actually asked for…

Finally, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, or even the dreaded failure. Mistakes are valuable learning material and bad ideas are not to be despised as they often bring us closer to good ideas. Some may say I made a mistake by joining the cryptocurrency industry just before it crashed. I would disagree. If my objective had been to make millions in cryptocurrency, then I might be sad, but my objective was to push myself outside my comfort zone, work with new people, try new things, and build a new product. I did all of that and have learned plenty in the process (including a few other mistakes) so I am not sad.

Onwards and upwards to the next challenge.

Don’t Fear Delivery

Therefore, let us focus on our passions and what makes us unique. Let us learn what that is and harness it to deliver results. And then it will be those results which speak volumes, they will demonstrate the value of our learning and illustrate the capacity of what we are able to achieve.

Let our fears drive us forward: learn new things, leave our comfort zones, and embrace new experiences.

And to those who feel perfectly adequate, who love uncertainty and thrive on conflict – beware! Don’t become complacent and plateau, you could very well be overtaken by the inadequates who embrace and harness their fears!

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Phil Osmond

About

Phil Osmond

Currently Product Lead for an agency in Bristol, Phil has over 15 years experience delivering software and managing products which meet real user needs. Previously he has led product at a cryptocurrency startup and before that developed a variety of products in the eCommerce space. Phil is a big fan of community - both on and offline - and always seeking to learn something new!