Are you cut out for Product Management?

Adrienne Tan

We know Product Management is a tough gig. So many articles have been written about this multifaceted, multidimensional role encouraging us to continue to fight the good Product fight.

But what about quitting Product Management? What about if your personality and attitude aren’t suited to the role? Let’s address the elephant in the room and ask ourselves, “Am I cut out for Product Management? Or should I quit the profession?”

The difference between letting go and quitting

Last Christmas, my family and I decided to go skiing in Italy. I have always been a perpetual beginner on the ski slopes, struggling to stay off my butt most of the time. But this trip I was determined that it would be different. I would invest hours into practising, into skiing classes and coaching sessions. Quitting is not in my nature.

Yet even with the additional investment and change of attitude, I can only “ski down” a molehill while gritting my teeth in fear. I can barely push my legs apart to do a snowplow.

I really wanted to be a good skier. I didn’t want to quit, but I couldn’t grasp the basic skills and this made me miserable.

Ultimately, I had to make a decision. Keep trying and be miserable, or face quitting and be disappointed in myself for giving up. Wrestling with these options, I imagined what it would be like to succeed. Then it hit me – I would never enjoy learning to ski because I don’t like the sensation of swishing down a mountain quickly.

Ray Dialto PrinciplesSo I let go of skiing.

How does this relate to Product Management? Being a Product Manager can be very challenging and some days you may wonder if it is all worth it. If you have days where you are struggling, and doubting if you have what it takes, remember you have three options:

  1. Push through. Develop skills and keep practising.
  2. Quit now. Realise that even though you want to succeed the cost is too high.
  3. Let go. Consider if you are actually chasing the right goal. Maybe Product Management is just not the right thing for you and there are other roles that will make you happy and fulfilled.

The difference between letting go and quitting is all in your attitude. Quitting is when we believe to have failed at something and sever our ties with it completely. Letting go is far more nuanced. We may continue in our role but change our attitude. We may find out ways and means to go about our daily jobs. We may make steps in a different direction without the finality of quitting.

Sometimes our changing attitude in letting go gives us massive gains in maturity and perspective which are invaluable for our roles.

Hate counting?

The core of our Product Manager roles is how value is exchanged. This means being able to quantify the value we bring to both customers and our organisation.

The over-focus on Agile rituals such as Standups, Sprint Planning and Retros has meant that we have forgotten the commercial aspects of our role. Jason Prowd, Director of Product Management at Morning Star aptly describes what we’ve been too obsessed with – “JIRA wrangling”.

As a Product Manager, you need to love counting. Numbers represent our hard work.

You should know what moves your product needle and count the things that inform you if your product:

  1. Is making headway (leading indicators) and,
  2. Has kicked goals (lagging indicators).

Some examples of leading indicators:

  • Number of customer inquiries
  • Email open rate
  • Referrals
  • Trial users

Some examples of lagging indicators:

  • Active users
  • Retained subscribers
  • ARPU
  • NPS

Don’t like saying no’?

Great Product Managers deliver products for a market segment, not for an individual or for one enterprise customer. You’ll be faced with many different requests to make a change to your product for a handful of customers, and will need to use your judgement, data, or both, to evaluate these promptly.

If your experience and your analysis points to a ‘no’, then your job is to communicate this to your stakeholders.

Of course, there are many kind ways to say ‘no’ (check out this great article by Sebastien Phlix, Product Manager at Typeform, on the art of delivering a ‘Positive No’)

However, if you find it constantly challenging to say ‘no’ to your sales team, customers or Customer Service team, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your suitability for Product Management.

Shy away from taking initiative?

Initiative means “the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do”. Being a Product Manager is a leadership role, not an order-taker role.

In start-ups, Product Managers often report that founders don’t allow them to steer the Product Strategy and Roadmap. And while there’s some truth that some founders have difficulty letting go, a large part of this problem is that Product Managers often wait for an official announcement that they’re responsible for the Product Strategy and Roadmap.

But first, Product Managers need to demonstrate to founders or executives that progress is happening, so that founders can trust that their vision is being nurtured.

Not only do Product Managers have to take initiative, but according to Insead, we also have to go beyond. Product Managers must:

  1. Align diverse functions and groups so they can learn and ensure the highest quality output.
  2. Be savvy at developing our networks.
  3. Make trade-offs and walk tightropes between groups competing for budgets and resources.

If you don’t have a bias to action and are afraid of the consequences of your decisions, then this job may not be for you.

Don’t like switching contexts?

Product Managers work across functional groups, traversing different domains from Technical teams to Finance groups and almost everybody in between. Layer customer research and conversations on top of these discussions and the job becomes inherently more challenging.

But shifting topics from one group to another is a key part of the job, and it’s the Product Manager’s role to synthesize those conversations, create meaning and translate into languages that can be understood by other groups.

If you find moving from a sprint planning session to a budget conversation with your manager uncomfortable or unnerving, then the Product Management job is not for you.

Can’t think big and small?

A Product vision is key to delivering great products. The folks at Aha describe a Product vision as:

the core essence of its product or product line. It also sets the direction for where a product is headed or the end state for what a product will deliver in the future.

A vision isn’t something that can be delivered in a single hit. Neither should the vision be delivered and launched after years in development. The core product, or the elements that solve the most valuable customer problem should be delivered and tested first before

Breaking down the ‘future, big picture’ view and prioritising what part of the vision should be implemented now is a key characteristic of the Product role, and needs to be done while context switching with all of the other activities that are going on at the same time.

Don’t like to take risks?

Designing, making, launching and managing a product is risky. To minimise this, we conduct research, analyse data, run experiments and use every tool and trick in our Product Management handbook to increase our certainty that the product will enjoy success and reward our businesses.

At some point in this process, the Product Manager has to make a calculated risk, to choose which opportunity to pursue, to choose which features to add, which bugs to fix, to make trade-offs.

As early as 2008, Marty Cagan wrote:

“In a very real sense, every product manager is in the risk management business. Every investment decision we make represents a risk.”

If you’re afraid of taking risks every day or worse yet, you don’t realise that you’re taking a risk each time you’re prioritising an idea, user story or activity over another, it’s time to find a role that doesn’t require you to be the Key Investment Manager (KIM).

If you’re afraid of taking risks, or worse yet, you don’t realise that you’re taking a risk each time you’re prioritising an idea, user story or activity over another, are you cut out to be a Product Manager? Click To Tweet

Don’t like ambiguity?

Product Manager responsibilities, activities and deliverables tend to change and shift from company to company and sometimes, even within companies.

To add complexity, each company’s Product Management framework and process is nuanced, which makes Product Managers’ work ambiguous. It can often feel like you’re on quicksand, trying to find a firm footing as you move from team to team and company to company.

Dan Schmidt writes:

The ambiguity of the Product Management role is near to its essence.

Heck! Don’t even get me started on job titles. What one company calls a Product Owner, another company will title it Product Manager or even sillier, Agile Product Manager.

Why letting go is important

Over the last two-to-three years, the interest in Product Management has risen phenomenally, evidenced by increased demand for Product Management training and the proliferation of Product Management trainers, coaches, consultants and everything else in between.

Folks are clamouring to transfer from Customer Service, BA, UX, Project roles into Product Management. Demand for Product Managers is high and supply low, and according to some companies, some Product Managers on the market who are ‘ready-for-hire’ are lacklustre.

Startups, in particular, have had a tough time finding Product Managers who can make an impact quickly and oftentimes cycle through a number of Product Managers to hopefully land on one whose efforts can be seen to produce a material difference – an expensive exercise fraught with emotional highs and lows.

What is becoming clear is that while anyone can become a Product Manager, not everybody should.

There’s no denying that Product Management is a tough gig, regardless of your experience, the industry, company structure, or the maturity of your company’s Product Management practice.

But precisely because Product Management is a leadership role, it requires the self-insight, discernment and wisdom to know whether or not quitting, holding or letting go is required. And the courage to make the next move.

Want to know if your Product Manager is cut out for Product Management?

Lisa Simons and Adrienne Tan created a Product Manager Assessment tool to discover where Product Managers fit in the broad domain of Product Management. If you’re interested in learning more, give Adrienne a call on 1800 272 466.

Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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