Most product managers are driven to achieve excellence in their craft. Many, however, get stuck in what I call “product consultant” mode and cannot break out of it.
Many product managers never get to launch a product, let alone own one. They go from planning one product to the next, foregoing the opportunity to establish fundamental product instincts, which only develop after managing the same product for an extended period of time. This gap can be amplified by switching industries or by the rare occurrence of alternating between consumer and enterprise product management, which can be disruptive to a product manager’s professional development and career.
This post is about what it takes to break out this “product consultant” mode, how to avoid it and ultimately how to achieve excellence in product management.
Steve Jobs’ Take on Consulting
Below is what Steve Jobs said to a class of MIT graduates in 1992 once he realized that the majority of the students had a background in consulting.
“I think that without owning something over an extended period of time – like a few years – where one has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations, where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulates scar tissue for the mistakes and pick oneself up off the ground and dust oneself off, one learns a fraction of what one can.
Coming in and making recommendations and not owning the results, not owning the implementation, I think is a fraction of the value and a fraction of the opportunity to learn and get better. You do get a broad cut at companies but it’s very thin.
It’s like a picture of a banana. You might get a very accurate picture but it’s only two-dimensional and without the experience of actually doing it, you never get three-dimensional. You might have a lot of pictures on your wall that you can show off to your friends – I’ve worked in bananas, I’ve worked in peaches, I’ve worked in grapes – but you never really taste it.”
Accumulating Product Management Scar Tissue
As I’ve shown in the above chart, many product managers typically transition from planning and pitching one product initiative to the next, and rarely get to launch and build one. From my experience, most new product initiatives within large organizations receive an average of 18 months of attention and then often get abandoned when the next wave of initiatives emerge. This environment prevents product managers from accumulating “product management scar tissue”, which develops from correcting your mistakes over an extended period of time spanning several major product releases.
In the above chart I’ve tried to show what it can look like when a product manager works on the same product for an extended period of time, where they can accumulate product management scar tissue. In fact, this is an example of a trajectory for a product manager who is able to improve as product manager.
The worst case, yet unrealistic scenario, is depicted in the chart below, because it assumes the product manager’s inability to learn from any of their mistakes. Any product leader would prevent this type of trajectory sooner than later.
Breaking out of Product Consultant Mode
Transformation from being self-centric to customer-centric
Product managers who make the transformation from being product consultants, have the privilege of working in an environment where they completely own their decisions and do not act on behalf of someone else. By owning all of the decisions, the product manager can eventually defeat the belief that building the product “my way” will lead to a great product.
- A failure to overcome this belief can be disastrous, because it delays the realization that, in most cases, your own ideas are terrible when they are not based on the customer. I remember how early in my career I pushed my engineering team to add a carousel type feature to make it easy to jump from one user profile to the next. We went through countless revisions to only find out later that this feature was barely used by our customers. It simply didn’t occur to me that others wouldn’t want to use the application “my way”.
- What’s worse, the innate need to build products “my way” only increases product managers’ desire to act on their own ideas when an opportunity presents itself. This is why some product leaders during the later stages of their careers, when they have increased levels of autonomy, make self-centric product decisions, such as changing the location or color of a button in the middle of a design review – based on what makes sense to them. They never unlearned being self-centric. They never accumulated any substantial product management scar tissue. They never learned to be customer-centric.
The ultimate goal for product managers and product leaders is to instinctively focus on the customer and not their own egos. This is hard since it is natural to be self-centered and unnatural to be customer-centric. In Scott Belsky’s recently published book “The Messy Middle”, he highlights how we are hardwired to prefer short-term rewards, because delayed gratification causes anxiety and discomfort. Thus, I think the main career-long objective for product managers is to reprogram themselves over time from being self-centric to customer-centric, to get the urge of acting on their own ideas out of their system. Or as Belsky puts it, “to hack their reward system”.
An important element to achieving this is to be able to build one’s own ideas and see them through, until:
- you exhaust this urge, which is driven by your ego, and hit rock bottom.
- you fail so many times that – as a non-technical PM – you have become technical enough to realize that it isn’t the underlying technology that is responsible for the failed product.
- you experience so much pain from self-inflicted failure that you cannot help but ruthlessly focus on the customer. My article “10 Hacks of Customer-Centric Enterprise Product Managers” dives into this deeper.
- there is so much frustration with yourself from so many failed products that you physically cannot draw a single wireframe unless it is to solicit customer input – not yet another attempt at pushing your own view of what the product should do.
- you are left with the profound realization that it is only about the customer.
Until that moment, the customer will let you know in so many ways how bad you are as a product manager. Which hurts. Over time, this pain will make you genuinely less and less self-centric, and instead ignite an obsession to only focus on the customer.
This process will be long or short, depending on your personality. People with strong egos typically have a much harder time learning from this experience, but they use their ego later on to be even more customer-centric and more importantly stay that way.
For instance, I know a startup founder, who has been on this journey for close to a decade and still has not come around. He has gone from failure to failure and still thinks that he has all the right answers. He is frustrated, because his customers just won’t listen. I am hopeful he will make the transformation eventually.
It’s similar to the infamous 10,000-hour rule, which requires you to do an activity with focus in order to achieve excellence. Becoming customer-centric requires you to adapt, to have an open mind. Some people can ignore all types of signals and still put their own ego above it all. Be aware of your personality and take known blind spots into account to accelerate your transformation.
Not acting on one’s own ideas is not to say that you should fall back into waterfall mode, and start building things after 12 months of researching customers. Quite the contrary, you should not lose your bias for action, but only act on ideas that are based on the customer.
How to Make the Transformation
In most cases, it is rare to have absolute autonomy in making decisions and to be accountable for them for an extended period of time. Unless you have a great track record as a product manager, you won’t be given this privilege in most cases.
So how do you make the transformation?
There are a number of ways to make this learning experience:
- Choose your boss and company wisely: It is important for you to recognize and choose product leaders who have gone through this learning experience themselves. Someone who has leveraged this experience, not someone who keeps you from being self-centric by their own self-centricity and delays your transformation. As Belsky’s “The Messy Middle” puts it, “product leaders, who embrace uncertainty, let others experiment”. It is even more important that these product leaders operate within a company, whose culture supports this kind of professional development by creating an environment that is characterized by longevity, autonomy, and accountability.
- Start a startup, business or something: Become a (startup) founder of literally anything. It allows you to make decisions and see them through, no matter how bad they are, until there is a reality check, such as running out of funds, customer attrition, inability to hire, etc. All of these strong negative experiences will provide the opportunity to begin the transformation to being customer-centric. However, they are only an opportunity, you still need to seize it.
- Work in adjacent job functions: Another great way to begin this transformation is to work in job functions that are adjacent to product management. It could be engineering, design, product marketing, or customer success, as long as it is in an environment that provides the necessary longevity, autonomy and accountability. Facebook, for instance, makes every engineer maintain their own code after it is released.
Be aware that as you make progress you can relapse at any time. No matter how much progress we make towards being customer-centric, we are always at risk of our ego making us fall back into natural self-centric patterns. So staying humble is critical. This is not to say that you should not draw confidence from the gains you make towards being customer-centric. While any hard-earned gain can be easily lost, over time it becomes simpler to recover from setbacks.
This is why I am always a bit wary of someone who calls themselves a “product guy” or “product guru”. Whether it implies that some have an innate product gene, or whether they believe that they have achieved mastery and don’t have to worry about losing it, I think it sends a dangerous message to others and more importantly to themselves.
I would like to conclude with a message I heard from Dewitt Jones, National Geographic’s highly acclaimed photographer. While he highlighted several factors that support his success in photography, the following line has stuck with me as inspirational in achieving excellence in product management:
So first we have to train our technique and then we have to put ourselves in the place of most potential. The place where I have the most possibility of finding multiple right answers.