What product management wants

"Is it just me or does every product manager feel like this?"

My former, product manager coworker asked me this while walking the streets of Manhattan. He had recently gone through some work shit and was struggling with it -- experiencing the doubt that strikes at the heart of anyone in a tough work situation. He asked that question rhetorically, as if he expected the universe to give him an answer so he could resolve his doubts and move on.

I stepped in for the universe. "It's not just you. We all feel that way."

Product management is a difficult, burnout-inducing profession. We do it because we love the idea of it more than actually doing it. I've hit the point in every product job I've ever had where I tell myself, "this is the last product job I'll ever have." Still, I keep doing product work, hoping that the next job I have will be the one that fulfills my expectations.

What will it take to close the gap between our expectations and reality in the product management profession?

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Let's unpack the job of a PM. We take an ill defined idea and turn it into something that people will love.

That means we need to understand what people need, lead a team to create an amazing solution, ship it into the world, see what happens, and then start the whole process over again. If all goes well, the people who use the product pay us (ideally with money) in return for how much they love the product. The job sounds pretty great.

It sounds pretty great, in theory.

In practice, a product manager struggles to balance the needs of:

  • the company who depends on the product's success
  • the customers who pay the bills
  • the users (who may or may not be the people who pay)
  • executives and others who impose their demands
  • new problems which have to be dealt with ASAP
  • themselves and their happiness

That last one is the hardest by far. We product people are unhappy. That's more than just my opinion.

"Product manager" was named one of the unhappiest jobs for two years straight, 2011-2012. Don't believe it? Ask a PM about his/her job and you'll see the sadness in their eyes. I can't remember the last time I met a PM who was truly happy with his or her job.

Why are we product people so unhappy? The explanation is deceptively simple. There's an enormous gap between the expectations of what we want in a product job and the reality of doing the job.

Let me describe the gap in more detail.

You expect: ownership of the decisions and direction for a chunk of the product
In reality: you're expected to adopt the same decisions and opinions as your boss & managers
You expect: authority to make decisions based on hard data, user needs, and other evidence
In reality: HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person's Opinion) make decisions despite or withholding evidence
You expect: to work with a close knit team to focus on delivering that product
In reality: you can't deliver because the team and priorities change too often
You expect: enough support to make the product as successful as it can be
In reality: you capitulate because you don't have the resources to make it successful
You expect: responsibility to make the decisions that make the product successful
In reality: you have to get layers of approval, and your decision can be overturned by anyone above you
You expect: recognition if things go well, or blame if they don't
In reality: no recognition when things go well, and all the blame if they don't
You expect: bottom-up management -- you tell the execs what they should be paying attention to
In reality: top-down management -- someone else tells you what you're going to do next
You expect: a job where you're the fearless leader of a team who fights to achieve awesomeness
In reality: you're a middleman who takes the specs from the customers or managers to the engineers

That gap between reality and expectations is called burnout. The larger the gap, the faster you and your team will descend into underperformance and depression. And that, in a nutshell, why PMs are so unhappy.

Despite all that, we still do the work -- hoping that the next job will be the right one where we can do product management "the right way," where our reality will match our expectations. And if there is a gap, hopefully we're paid well enough to ignore that gap.

But that's a horrible capitulation. There's got to be a better way to do this.

--

What does product want?

We want to...

  • make something that people love
  • own our customers' and users' goals and problems
  • make decisions based on data and evidence, not opinion
  • have the authority to define our own success
  • have the responsibility to achieve our success
  • get the resources we need to reach that goal
  • have the trust of our stakeholders and managers

That last one -- trust -- is the hardest one. "Why should anyone trust the product team?" I've heard that said too many times and too many ways in my product management career. "First, product has to earn the trust of the organization. Then they can take ownership."

Therein lies the problem. A healthy team is built on trust -- trust that the product team knows how to do their job, how to understand users, how to work with stakeholders, and how to make the right decisions that will make the company and product and users successful.

A healthy team trusts by default.

When trust is lacking, you'll get the "in reality" situations I described. HiPPOs tell the product team what to do because they don't trust the product team to make decisions themselves. The company's course changes constantly because nobody trusts in the product team's direction. The product manager is blamed for failure even though the product manager never even made a decision by his/herself.

Fixing the problem begins with trust.

To all you executives, product management leaders, or anyone who interacts with your product teams -- if you want a healthy product team, you have to trust them with the authority and responsibility to do their jobs. And you should be uncomfortable to cede that much power to them.

It's a difficult request. Product management is a critical role in a company, and everybody has an opinion on what's the next most important thing to produce. Giving that power away is a difficult decision, but it's one that's essential if you want to see a product team thrive.

The best product team I ever worked on was built on trust. Each PM had a well defined role and knew how their product area laddered up to the company objectives. We were held to goals that we defined for ourselves, and we were given the authority to achieve those goals as we saw fit.

The worst teams I've been on, on the other hand, were built on all the opposite. The management questioned and trumped the teams' decisions regularly. There was no clear ownership and no authority given to the product teams. The team was told what their goals were. There was no trust, and no path to achieve that trust.

If you don't trust a team or are so uncomfortable that you won't cede that power to them, fire those people and replace them with people who you do trust, with people who you would empower with real ownership.

Because if you're not willing to trust them, you don't have a product team. You have a bunch of overly-paid people who pass specs from the managers to the engineers.

So make the decision to trust your product team. Work with them to understand the problems facing your organization. Help them come up with amazing solutions to those problems. Believe in them when they ship their solutions. And celebrate their wins to show your thanks.

That's what product really wants -- trust. And that will make your product managers happy.

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