Product managers can encounter no end of contradictions as they drive for good outcomes for their products. What are these contradictions and how can product managers deal with them?
Google is a juggling elephant. It serves conflicting needs of large user segments. One is the need of billions of consumers looking for the most accurate answers, another is of millions of companies wanting to introduce new products to consumers who are not necessarily looking for them. Yet, for a company that makes over $100 billion annually almost exclusively from ads, the end customer views Google as a search company.
The craft of product management is filled with such contradictions, and they can contort even the most flexible of minds. These conflicts are what makes product management hard to define, while at the same time making the role essential to drive meaningful outcomes in modern complex organizations. While there are many skills that are required to varying degrees in a product manager – depending on the market and product – the ability to handle opposites is a key common qualification. I’m not claiming this is unique to product management, or even to corporate life. But, the frequency and intensity with which we encounter this strain in the product world makes it a pattern worth exploring.
Let me elucidate a few.
Intuition With Data
Product managers rely on data to be their truth compass when they’re bombarded with hundreds of opinions from customers and stakeholders. And while data speaks the truth and nothing but the truth, it’s almost never the whole truth. Lots of simple solutions lie in the realm of instinct, shaped by a mix of unplanned consumer conversations, perception and empathy. I can recount many instances when first-rate product managers have uncovered sharp insights, starting with statements as mundane as “I think there is something there”. But the issue with intuition is that it comes with a hit rate and almost always needs data for validation or deeper exploration. This dance between intuition and data, and probing where the boundaries lie, is one of the most common contradictions that product managers need to spend time to appreciate, accept, and master.
Creativity With Focus
This is more a left and right brain issue. Some product managers can come up with the most inventive ideas, but unless they can gather enough focus to communicate, manage and measure to see things through, it all amounts to nothing. However, focus and single-mindedness also require you to block out distractions and frequent fresh impulses, the very seeds that spark new ideas. A product manager also has to assimilate inputs from engineers and designers. Engineers’ training is centred on focus and designers’ training on creativity. See the problem?
Short Term With Long Term
This has to do with conflicting end goals of business and leverage functions. Business roles are driven by month-on-month numbers and are highly accountable in the short term. Engineering and design are leverage roles that run on longer cycles and invest for step outcomes. Product management hangs around in the middle, trying to manage outcomes for both. “Should I sign off this small dirty hack this week for a small growth uptick? Or should I save the bandwidth and tech debt for the big release next month, hoping it will open up a new category? Or should I just push for a dirty version of the big release quickly to accommodate time for iterations at the cost of tech debt?”. These are universal questions that all product managers lose sleep over. Unfortunately, any answer to these questions has somebody on the losing end, who will very promptly set up a meeting.
Practicality With Blind Ambition
This is an internal struggle. It’s expected that any product manager should think through all possible scenarios and accommodate corner cases. The more you think through, the more cases arise, and practicality dictates more time and effort to cover them. The process of thinking through, a key element of a product management job, by design pushes product managers towards safer choices.
But safer choices hardly ever deliver a step jump in outcomes. These require bold thinking and taking risks. Top product managers who deliver consistently all have developed their own balance of ambition with a keen sense of practicality. A slip on either side will result in lots of activity with no outcome.
Being Perceptive While Being Distant
This has particular relevance in consumer product. Product managers in consumer tech usually rely on insights derived from a deep sense of consumer empathy. Great product managers genuinely feel for the user and personally take an interest in solving their problems. This perceptiveness often is at odds with the organization’s goal of profits. At some level the organization requires product managers to exploit their understanding of user behavior for profits, even if there is no apparent problem to solve. This requires them to distance themselves from the users temporarily and work at odds with something they deeply care about. With every “last room left”, “last booked 2 mins ago” tag you see on hotel booking sites, there is a product manager who thinks they have sold a little bit of their soul.
Conviction With Doubt
This is where the craft gets really tricky. Recognize the contradictions and work with them. But don’t let the doubt show in your product. Consumers can smell it and it’s what makes for lousy products. Long-term impactful products are built when the contradictions are handled well but not necessarily with compromises. Work with the doubt, but your product needs to show conviction.
Compartmentalization within teams helps. Many product teams rely on this. When there are multiple customers with conflicting objectives, teams move towards a system where an individual product manager wears the hat of one customer. In a food delivery company, for example, one product manager might wear the hat of a customer, another of a food delivery executive, and another of a restaurant owner. This helps in unravelling the conflicts early. Healthy teams discuss and debate conflicts to bring out winning solutions. Compartmentalization also helps in bringing about consensus between stakeholders about the solution. The team works like one mind.
However, the importance of training your brain in handling contradictions can’t be overstated. Product management is a cerebral craft. It’s important to recognize the importance of the mental struggle and work towards building the malleability of the mind.
It’s hard and valuable. As F Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”