Product Management has become an incredibly sought-after career path for people with all kinds of backgrounds and expertise and, while the discipline is crucial to the success of modern business, it’s still very much in a state of development. As a result of all of those factors, it’s very easy to discover myths and product management fallacies that paint a misleading picture of what it’s like to be a practising product manager. This is obviously frustrating, but it can be especially damaging when you’re still early in your career and trying to learn about the craft.
As a product management professional with over 15 years of experience in telecom and digital technology companies, I’d like to share my perspectives and experiences, and hopefully dispel some of the five most common (and most misleading) fallacies and misconceptions I’ve seen.
Fallacy 1: A Product Manager Is a “Mini CEO”
This is among the most common misunderstandings about product management. From what angle can a product manager be called a CEO?
Yes, a product manager is responsible for product launch and in ensuring a positive bottom line. They might even be accountable for defined milestones in the product roadmap. However, just because they are responsible for key aspects of the product and are the single point of contact for that product does not make them a CEO.
In reality, depending upon the size of the organisation, a product manager must constantly seek approval – from UI/UX changes to financial decision – and there can be multiple layers of authority and negotiation to get through. This doesn’t sound like the direct leadership & broad autonomy privileges of a CEO.
In my own experience as Head of Product for a social networking, music and gaming suite of digital products, while I was solely responsible for the delivery of all product releases and feature updates, I had no authority over other teams involved in the product development process. While I had my product backlog scheduled as per an approved (annual) product roadmap, there were still regular new requirements from business teams working with changeable clients. As a result, I had to negotiate closely with my heads of development and finance, and with our project management office for the additional resources we would need to serve these new requirements.
This was quite challenging – and occasionally frustrating – but also one of the most exciting aspects of that role as it provided maximum learning. I had to use my rapport with each person – not my authority – to ensure I could meet my deadlines. In a way, I felt empowered by being able to meet those challenges, and I was able to hone my people management and leadership skills.
Fallacy 2: A Product Manager Doesn’t Need to Be Technical
Marc Andreessen famously stated in 2011 that “Software is eating the world”. In order to be truly successful as a digital product manager, you will need to have some understanding of what technology can achieve, and how it is developed.
A product manager can absolutely come from any field, and I personally believe it’s an advantage for product managers to come from diverse non-IT backgrounds. However, they must be ready to quickly learn about existing and new technologies to be able to modernise their products.
Take me, for example: when I joined a telecom operator as a commerce graduate with an MBA in marketing, I had no clue that I would be meddling with so much technical detail even as part of the marketing team! My perception of product management at a telecom operator was designing Go-To-Market plans for new offers, or developing pricing interventions. The reality was that I had to understand the functioning of Intelligent Networks (IN) systems, Billing Support System (BSS), various components of GSM radio network, and more!
I realised that until I understood the underlying technology and its components in depth, I wouldn’t be able to understand the full potential of our network deployment. And, of course, I needed that understanding to ideate new features, and prepare product requirement documents (PRDs) for our development teams. And the story didn’t end there, of course; I had to constantly update myself with new developments in my field, like the details of 3G and 4G technologies when they entered the market.
While a product manager doesn’t need to come from a primarily-technical background, they do need to develop and maintain a strong understanding of relevant software and technologies, and how they are developed. This is critical for creating new and exciting features to customers, and differentiating your own product against competitors.
Fallacy 3: Product Managers Should Rely on Gut Feeling
This is one of the funniest misconceptions I have read, and honestly, it does not hold any resemblance to reality. While a certain amount of intuition is useful, a product manager has to eat, sleep and drink numbers, all the time. Be it research for a new product launch, or changing features in an existing product, everything needs quantitative support. This is what differentiates a seasoned product manager, able to smoothly gain management approval and financial validation and buy-in. As the saying goes:
“In God we trust, everyone else please bring numbers.”
During my stint as head of a New Product Development team where we launched a dating app from scratch, we implemented a user onboarding process with all the usual steps for creating a new profile. It included things like validating users with a One-Time Password over mobile, and mandatory profile details (name, age, gender, location, interests, etc.). We were quite successful in generating initial interest among the target customers, and app downloads were good – but we faced a peculiar problem in the form of a drastically low rate of profile creations.
Due to time pressure, we did a quick round of user research (internally and externally), which gave us a useful piece of insight: users did not feel confident about supplying personal details, as they were unsure about the service quality at that early stage. To address this challenge, we came up with a unique ‘window shopping’ solution. This meant users would be able to browse existing profiles before creating their own, building trust in the service.
Now, this felt like a sure-fire solution and many stakeholders we talked to approved of this feature. However this was a major change so, before implementing it for all users, we did some A/B testing. First we validated the proof-of-concept through significant improvement in test results, and then we implemented the feature for all users – this helped us ensure our understanding was accurate, and reduce the risk involved in such a significant feature roll-out. As expected (or rather, experimentally suggested), it was a great hit – our conversion rate from app download to profile creation improved by over 400%. Crucially, we felt confident going into this release because we’d tested and validated our assumptions with concrete data.
Fallacy 4: A Product Manager Needs to Know Everything
This misconception is pretty broad, and you’ll hear different versions depending on who you’re talking to. I actually believe that a product manager does need to have incredibly broad knowledge, but they certainly don’t need to know everything about their product / company / market.
Obviously, a product manager wears many hats, often at the same time. At one end of the spectrum, they need to have a clear understanding of the organisational strategy to inform the product roadmap. One the other, they need to be able to conceptualize and prioritize even the smallest features. They should be at ease talking to experts in multiple fields, but they do not need to be experts.
At the end of the day, a product manager is not Superman – they simply cannot be expected to be omniscient and omnipresent. More to the point, we have access to those domain experts and product managers, being great resource mobilizers, can get the details and support they need from those specialists.
I was recently leading the product team at a newly launched Telco, in one of the last frontier markets in South East Asia. We were the last entrants into an already crowded market, where internet-connected products were highly commoditized and among the cheapest in the world. We were tasked to launch digital products in a very short span of time to help the company build differentiation and product leadership in the market.
One of the key products was an “IPTV” service, and the challenge was that we had to develop it from scratch – there were no existing deployments with any other Telco or ISP. This meant that we had to develop the full end-to-end product, cover business cases, Go-To-Market strategies, local / global content alliances, device bundling, app development, and web flow. And on the technology side, we had to consider hardware sizing, platform partner selection, decisions for cloud / on-premise hosting, and the list goes on.
Though I had experience launching Over-The-Top (OTT) apps and managing content alliances and monetization, an IPTV service was a different game altogether. Of course, while our team was ultimately responsible for the product, the responsibility of fully understanding the market was actually divided between IT, Network, and Procurement teams. With their expertise and insights, we were able to come up with the project report in a remarkably short time, which gave us a great advantage as we moved forward.
Fallacy 5: Product Managers Should Love Their Creation
Product managers are like parents to their products. They visualize and bring concepts to life, and then do everything possible to ensure growth. It’s quite obvious that they might be more supportive of their products than anyone else, but product managers should never be in love with their product.
Being in love with someone or something often means you cannot see faults, or hear criticisms about them. Yet the product manager needs to be the biggest critic of their products. They should be constantly evaluating how to further improve product usability or function.
A related point to this is that, while it’s human nature to get defensive when hearing views or suggestions that contradict your own viewpoint, a product manager should always welcome feedback and evaluate suggestions with different perspectives.
Our team had a key task of increasing our product sales via retail channels. I tried various schemes and education campaigns, but the most simple and effective idea ultimately came from a sales team member. His suggestion was very straightforward, and I originally resisted it – I felt it was too casual a suggestion, and that a sales person wouldn’t have enough product insight to have a high-impact perspective. Of course, we eventually ran a pilot of his idea, which turned out to be quite successful, and later implemented across all customers. I quickly learned that being defensive about my product, and of ideas that contradicted my own, was massively limiting my ability to be a high-impact product manager.
It’s an Art, and a Science
Given the unprecedented access we have to the insights and experiences of others, we have a fantastic opportunity to learn from our peers. That said, every situation is different and the experiences of others should be used as a general guideline or inspiration – not as gold-plated advice!
While we are strongly guided by data and experimentation, the practice of product management practice is also an art. We should consider situations and ideas with the right context and perspective, rather than generalise ideas for every situation. Make sure you carefully consider the context of any advice you hear, and develop a nuanced and careful sense of judgement, and you’ll soon be a product management champion.