Product management is notoriously difficult to define. We are generalists, and we work with many others. We take responsibility for the lifecycle of our product. These statements apply to almost all product managers, but they paint an incomplete picture.
It’s not Enough to be a Generalist
It’s not enough to be a generalist or to work closely with a wide range of people. It’s not enough to shepherd your product from cradle to grave. I’ve seen many product managers match this definition, but fail to be effective.
These product managers are just going through the motions. They fill in gaps where Design, Analyst, or QA resource is missing. They carry out orders on behalf of leadership, and satisfy the surface need for a decision-making process that consults everyone. And when it doesn’t work out, their final triumph is being easy to blame.
These product managers are hiding in the shadow of how things were. Back when projects still cascaded from the waterfall, when the only value calculation that mattered was business value, and when teams were not yet ready to be empowered. They hide in the shadow of how things were, because it’s safer there.
Step out into the Harsh Light of day
Diagnose critical assumptions, test them upfront, and make them known to others.
Squirm as your prototype collides with the reality of a usability test. Make failure possible by defining success metrics that actually hold your product accountable.
Start the difficult conversations. Be candid with your stakeholders. Call an early end to meetings when they have already fulfilled their purpose. Cancel meetings altogether when they long since stopped fulfilling any purpose at all.
Compel others towards a single purpose. Set an example by soliciting feedback, especially when you think you could have done better. Challenge your team to do the same. Build feedback mechanisms into the technology, the process, and the product.
Question orders from above when they are inconsistent, infeasible, or unclear. Make your voice heard. Influence decision making with evidence, with storytelling, and with your own particular brand of courage.
Call out the elephant in the room. Give him a name. Introduce him to your colleagues. Find him somewhere else to stay.
Step out of the safety of the shadow and embrace conflict.
Conflict is where the magic is.
In my talk at MTP Engage, I explain the defining role of conflict in Product Management. The talk includes:
- Common behaviour patterns to avoid
- The 3 key habits to effectively address conflict
- Practical tools to help you on your way:
As I elaborate in the talk, it is crucial to understand that reckoning with conflict is uncomfortable work. It takes resilience to surface problems, rather than minimise them.
For this reason I use a guiding principle: keep going until it’s uncomfortable.*
This, to me, is the defining feature of a product manager. Someone who harnesses conflict to take themselves, their colleagues and their product beyond the comfort zone, and on to greater things.
What conflicts are you avoiding?
* For clarity, this is not about overworking; it is not the “crazy-busy” product manager. It’s quite the opposite. A crazy-busy product manager is someone who is failing to examine and address their root problems, and is suffering as a result.