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Top Ten Ways to Fail as a Product Manager

Top Ten Ways to Fail as a Product Manager

Written by Brian Lawley, CEO and Founder of the 280 Group.

10. Talk More Than You Listen

If you are a Product Manager and you haven’t learned to be quiet and listen to what is really being said by customers, engineers, salespeople and executives then you are destined to fail. Learn about active listening and practice it constantly. Or take a class like How to be a Phenomenal Product Manager to learn how to communicate, negotiate and influence more effectively. Remember, silence is MUCH more powerful than chatter.

9. Stay Focused Only On Product Features and Working with Your Engineers

Let’s face it, Product Managers love products. We live for them. And our tendency, particularly for those who came from a technical background, is to go with what we know and are comfortable with. Don’t make this mistake. You need to spend the right amount of time making sure the product is right, but you also have to step up and be the strategic leader for the product to ensure its success. If you don’t, who will?

8. Don’t Get Trained

Product Managers come from all different backgrounds, including sales, engineering, support and more. Only 2% have ever been trained on how to do their jobs. The rest have learned on the job. Can you imagine another profession like engineering, sales or accounting where people would be expected to succeed without proper training? Check out this chart to see what training is right for you at this stage in your career.

Product Management Career Acceleration

7. Reinvent the Wheel

A huge amount of time is spent by Product Managers doing things like creating their own templates, starting documents from scratch, attempting to create a process for their company, etc. These are all things that have been done already, and you should leverage the efforts of others. A great place to start is the Product Management Office™ Professional.

6. Don’t Learn From Other’s Mistakes

If you don’t have a coach or a mentor then you are going to make the same mistakes that many other people have made. Don’t do this. It will slow (or possibly end) your career and make your job less enjoyable. Hire a coach or get a mentor to guide you and you’ll be better off.

5. Dig In and Don’t Compromise, Ever

One of the most common situations between Product Management and Engineering (and in many marriages that I have witnessed) is where one side digs in on their position when there is a disagreement. You have to stand your ground and insist things be a certain way some of the time. But if you do this all of the time the other side will realize that you are not a reasonable partner to work with. The result? They will dig in even deeper resulting in a stalemate as well as a very unpleasant and unsuccessful situation.

4. Never Visit Customers

If you aren’t getting out to see customers, holding a customer council or talking with them on the phone or via email several times a month, then you are going to be out of touch. And your credibility with your team will be much lower as they won’t consider you to own the voice of the customer and be the true advocate for what customers need. Talk to customers. Summarize your conversations and send them to your engineers and extended team. You’ll know you have succeeded when you engineers come to you with a question of what/how to implement and ask you “What will customers value the most.”

3. Don’t Own the Whole Product

There is no one in your company who has the complete 360 degree view of your product other than you. You know everything about it, including the competitive environment, strategy, challenges, support/warranty policies, pricing, how salespeople are representing it and more. As such there is no one who can have the impact and ability to deliver a whole product solution (not just the product’s feature list) to make sure customers love it. Own this responsibility and you will be perceived as a leader.

2. Rush into Agile Without a Focus on the Other Parts of the Business

Agile development can be great for the right products, and has huge benefits. However, most Product Managers are thrust into an agile environment without learning how this changes their job and how to be effective. Take a course like Agile Excellence for Product Managers to learn about how to do great work with agile development teams. And don’t make the mistake that many Product Managers do (see number nine above) and end up focusing all of your time and effort on the product and the agile process, backlog and sprints. You have to own all elements of product success, including strategy, business case, understanding market needs, completion, ensuring effective launches/marketing and end of life.

1. Be a Product Janitor

One of the concepts we teach in our Product Management courses is that you want to be a Product Manager, not a Product Janitor. What does this mean? Well, as a Product Manager you are going to have an endless list of things that people try to put on your plate. As a result, instead of being a strategic leader for the product, you end up doing almost all tactical work and clean up. A janitor cleans up other people’s messes, and this is not a situation you want to be in. Work strategically rather than tactically and this will help ensure your product is successful.

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5 Responses to Top Ten Ways to Fail as a Product Manager

  1. J.F. Ouellette Aug 21, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    I would say that I’ve been guilty of these at various level and in a different order. Some of it is really due to my inexperience at the time and the lack of guidance from a mentor. Had I had access to training earlier on in my career, I’m certain my effectiveness would have been greatly increased. I would add that a successful product manager is also the result of well managed organization. For example, the product janitor exists because its tolerated by the business and there is less of an interest in changing the role due to lack of knowledge or simply negligent management practices. This list should be printed and hung on the wall of every product manager or someone aspiring to become one. Thanks.

  2. Tom Evans Aug 22, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    Thanks for the post Brian. I think the biggest mistakes that I have committed (and also see with way too many other Product Managers) is being tactically focused on and not strategically focused. I think many of the points you note above tie back to not understanding the Strategic Nature of the role. Once I learned the Strategic nature of the PM role, I could see how I made a much more powerful contribution to the organization.

  3. Phil Burton Aug 24, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Reading that article, it was almost that Brian interviewed me for this blog post, and summarized my career. OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit for impact. But just a bit. I really loved the statement about, “As a Product Manager you are going to have an endless list of things that people try to put on your plate. ” So true.

  4. John Hawkins Aug 24, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    Guilty as sin of number 9 – biggest mistake I ever made in my product management life was to be focused on features being driven by an IETF RFC and the constraints of a development environment. Although these things were integral to getting a product delivered, they were clearly on the “how” side of the product equation (which is where development is strong). I spent far too much time trying to show development how smart I was and bumping bellies with them. If I could speak to my younger self, I would ensure that I carved out more time with customers to understand their pain points, and I would have been more deliberate at articulating strategic product vision and demonstrating leadership.

  5. Jay Sep 10, 2014 at 3:32 am #

    Brian, Excellent article! PM Courses and PM Office Professional are important tools.

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