Product Management Rule #29: A Business Is Not a Democracy

42 Rules of Product Management

Product Management Rule #29 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Management, was written by Phil Burton, Senior Principal Consultant, 280 Group

If you don’t make the difficult decisions, chances are no one will, and the business will suffer as a result.

As a product manager, you have a unique role within the company.

No one else within the company has the overall view of the entire business through the lens of your product that you do—not the CEO, not the finance people, not the manufacturing people, not the sales people, and not engineering. People in these job roles view your product through the perspective of their own job responsibilities and professional focuses.

As a product manager, your overall view can be a great source of job satisfaction. But you also have a unique responsibility for making decisions and recommendations about your product. As a product manager, you generally have no real authority (unless you manage a product management team), so all you can really do is make recommendations and influence people by the strength of your ideas and work.

If you don’t make the difficult decisions, chances are no one will, and the business will suffer as a result.

People in various job roles will always make decisions that make their jobs as easy as possible or more interesting. It’s human nature. For example, how many of us have not had a salesperson, usually two weeks before the end of the quarter, explain that if we only add this one feature to the product right now, he or she can close a really, really big deal. Sometimes it’s the engineer who prefers to use a new unproven technology rather than the tried and true methods that offer no new personal learning, or add an unneeded feature because it is “cool.” Never mind if these decisions make strategic sense for the product. And never mind the impact on overall schedules, risks, existing commitments, launch plans, or any of those other annoying product management issues.

But customers don’t care about features or technology.

They care only about the benefits that they receive from using your product. And they vote with their wallets.

It’s very common nowadays to make these decisions together with the “development team” or “the sales group.” However, that process will often lead to sub-optimal results, from the viewpoint of the business as a whole. My manager once asked me to figure out why another product in our group, which was not my responsibility, was getting zero traction in the marketplace. Apparently the highest priority for the product manager was getting “approval” from the engineers on that project, because he never questioned anything. Very quickly, I discovered that the entire design of this product was contrary to the needs of the target customers, so they all rejected it. I needed to make the hard recommendation to kill the project and spare my company the cost of further development and the embarrassment of launching a dead-on-arrival product.

If you permit the “team” or the “group” to vote on key product management decisions, or if you make decisions based on your personal need for “approval” or “respect,” you are abdicating your professional responsibilities.

If you are not comfortable providing leadership and making the key decisions, you should step down as product manager in favor of someone who is willing and capable.

Does the responsibility to make decisions and recommendations mean that you can simply issue edicts from on high? Of course not. Product management, at its best, is a synthesis role. You need to work with other members of your team to make trade-offs and compromises. The key is that these decisions must be based on business needs and objective market realities, not on personalities or the desire to “go along.”

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