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How to be a good product manager in a bad product company?

Some of you have may have worked in those kind of companies in which product people are not empowered (usually the rest of the company is also not empowered), in which the CEO is some sort of guru who micromanages everyone or the culture is very sales centric and sales decide on when and how to build the product or the business model is very close to 'project get $$$' in which customers pay to get their idea built. These examples of companies are all examples of bad product company, it doesn't mean they are not able to get new customers or grow but they, most of the time, are behind customer expectations and struggle to innovate.

Even in those companies you will find product managers, why ? for mainly two reasons:

  • Some investors or advisors told the CEO that if you he wants to innovate he needs to have product managers
  • There is a misconception that good product managers are people who build things that customers wants (or say they want)

But what is a good product manager ?

Someone that is successful at building products (the s is important, you can't be successful every times) that customers love

If you think this is easy to do, and the only thing to do is to listen to what customers want and build it, you will fail most of the time, because people are very bad at knowing what they want. This one of the role of the product manager, to fill the gap between what customers think they want and what they really need. A famous and eye-opening quote of Henry Ford on this topic is If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

When you are a product manager you need to understand what customers need, how you can address it considering the business model of your company, if is this technically feasible in a short span of time, get it bought by executives, bring it live not too late after the day which was expected and at the end you need to get people to like using it. As you can see, it is only at the end of the whole process that you know if what your team built is a success or a failure.

This is a very long process, with several challenges, and never one best solution, always complex and unpredictable choices, in which you take risks, one small mistakes and the whole product can be irrelevant.

If you want your product managers to be good they need to be empowered, they need to feel they own the future of the product, they need to be responsible for the failure or the success, because if you do not, at every issue they will complain that it is not their fault (developer is not good enough, customers don't know what they want, people don't understand the UX,...), the best way to take the most of someone is to trust him, encourage him, and help him in difficult times. If you want to go deeper on this topic you can read this article of Marty Cagan

But this article's title is 'How to be a good product manager in a bad product company'. In a bad product company you will not find empowered PM, so you need to find another way to create your products, the CEO will come to your desk every day asking "where is X feature ?", sales guys will tell you customer asked for one last change and so on ...

Experienced people will tell you that in that atmosphere the right decision is to spend more time educating your stakeholders and explaining why your choice is the good one, but I'm somewhat against that, there is still this part of uncertainties, of guess, that you made that you won't be able to explain, and you will lose so much time trying to explain yourself. To me the only way to succeed in this kind of atmosphere is to ignore your stakeholders (and the risk here is to become a bad product manager in a bad product company), you have made your research, you know what customers told you, you know the business model of your company, you think you have the right idea in your hands, go for it, speak with your team, spend your time to have them with you ( and that's also why it is important to nurture good relationships with developers, in bad times they will trust you). If you know that doing half what you want and half what the CEO wants will results in a failure then don't listen to him. But to not do that with your 'feature' team, team members should trust each other and understand why we do things.

From my experience there is only one quick way to get more trust from someone who doesn't trust you, is to get right when he is wrong. When you fight with a CEO for months and at the end you were the one being right (don't underestimate capacity of CEO to be wrong), that will drastically improve his opinion of you, you will never get 100% trusted by him, but you will be more free next time, and if you fail it will not change much compared to if you listened to him as he would have reject the fault on you anyway.

Some people will argue saying it is the best way to get fired, I will say that this is not wrong, but if you think of work as a way to improve your knowledge and become better, which is better, risking being fired but having the possibility to create great products or staying but complaining that you are not free to make choices ?

Risk is part of any innovation, as a product manager one of your role is to take and manage risks. I'm not encouraging you to refuse to talk to your stakeholders or be stubborn, there are subtle ways to ignore people.

Take risks, and when you fail, accept it and try again better.

You have that kind of issue and don't know how to solve it ? send me a email