Surviving the Existential Crisis of life as a product manager

In the world of product management, there’s one question that remains difficult and frustrating to answer no matter if you’re a newbie or grizzled veteran:

So, what is it that you do anyway?

Ugh, years into being a PM and I still feel the anxiety build when someone asks me this, whether it be a new team member, someone from the industry or even a friend.

You’re probably familiar with blundering your way through some of the following responses…

“I figure out what we should build next.”

Short and sweet, and perhaps a little self important? Doesn’t really tell you anything either, unless you magically just know what to do next all the time.

“I’m a meeting and email shield for the team.”

So true it hurts! This is the one I use if I’m having a downer day, but it is definitely underselling yourself.

“It depends on the team and the state of the product that they are working on.”

Boring! And if you actually try to explain with examples then you’ve probably already lost the crowd.

“I represent the user’s needs to the team.”

If you read any PM books written by PMs for PMs, you’ve probably seen something like this… But, this one is probably going to get you into trouble if your team hears you saying it because:

a) You are not the user.

b) There’s no reason your team can’t know your user too.

c) UX research would be particularly miffed about this — “c’mon mate, you just make up all these assumptions about the user and we’re the ones actually figuring out who the user is!”

Partly it’s because yes the role of a PM evolves with the project and the team, and can be wildly different from project to project. But there’s also another reason, that deep down inside every PM’s heart is a raging existential crisis…

I mean… What IS it that you do anyway?

5 Hard Truths

They say the best therapy is to confront your fears head on, so that’s how we’re going to do this. We’re going to take 5 hard truths that PMs often worry about, own them, and turn them into strengths instead.

1) You’re the dumbest person in the room

There, I said it. Unless you happen to be talking to another product manager, you’re likely to be the dumbest person in the room at any point in time. This might sound a bit harsh, but what I mean by this is:

Your engineers are better engineers than you.

Your designers are better designers than you.

Sales and support know your customers better than you do.

Operations is better at keeping things running than you are.

And your users definitely know more about their problems than you do.

The hat is optional

Before you head off to wallow in despair, let me tell you about one superpower that being the dumbest person gives you… Free licence to ask the dumb questions.

Now, this might sound a bit like winning the wooden spoon, but over the years I’ve come to believe that dumb questions drive great product decisions.

If you think an engineering design sounds too complicated, ask some dumb questions and you’ll either learn something (awesome) or you might get the team to consider a simpler approach.

If you think a decision seems too opinionated, ask some dumb questions and you’ll find the underlying assumptions behind it.

If you don’t understand why a user is doing something weird, ask some dumb questions and you might see a problem, opportunity or pain-point that you’d never thought of before.

There’s another, longer-term benefit to asking the dumb questions. Most of the time, smart people can be quite difficult to get into the room. If you pay attention when asking your questions, you’ll eventually become a proxy for the experts on your team, which helps build the trust you need to be able to influence your team.

2) Your Bus Factor is low

Bus factor is a term used to describe how critical a person is to the team. i.e. If a team member was hit by a bus, how badly would the project suffer? Well, I’ve got some downer news for you… your bus factor is low, it might even be lower than the intern’s.

Damn those interns…

Before you decide to push the intern down the stairs, let’s try to see this in more of a positive light. In an ideal world, everyone’s bus factor would be low. But you’re not in an ideal world, so the least you can do is reduce unnecessary risk on your team. And a team that falls apart immediately without its PM is brittle and in an unhealthy state.

By understanding that your goal is to make your team run without you, you can come to appreciate what that would mean for other key roles in your team.

A common approach to this is the creation of a product team Triad, where PM, Engineering and UX leads make decisions together as often as possible in order to achieve kind of mind-meld.

Eventually, each role can represent the other and quickly unblock the team, or even fill in if one of the roles needs to be replaced. Just don’t cross the road all together now…

3) When times get tough, you bring the food (or worse)

In the world of product development, there’s almost certainly going to be a crunch time of sorts. That client or VP review, the immovable launch date, an unexpected emergency.

In these times, you’re not going to be the one to save the day.

Let’s face it, if it came down to the low-bus factor, dumbest person in the room, coming heroically to the rescue, then you likely have serious problems with your product or team.

Before you decide to banish yourself to the corner, know that you can do something meaningful that can help your team through high-stress times. Focus on morale. Bring the doughnuts. Make sure that everything else that could possibly get in your team’s way or annoy them is taken care of.

I can clearly remember the time that this hammered home for me… A couple of years back I was working on a high-intensity project when we hit a make or break moment. We were hours away from jumping on a plane to Brussels to meet our stakeholders, but the demo hardware and software was not working, and we had nothing to show for ourselves.

Things were looking bleak…

I asked one of my engineering leads “Is there anything I can do to help?” and he said “Yeah! I haven’t packed for the trip and we need to go straight to the airport from here, so can you go to my place and pack so I can work to the last minute?”

The undies of truth

30 minutes later I found myself across town, rummaging through a stranger’s drawers and packing his underwear into a bag and thinking… “Is this product management?”

The answer is, yes, yes it is…

4) Your ideas are terrible

You probably have lots of ideas, good! But here’s the rub… your ideas terrible. Some are terrible and boring, some are terrible and genuinely bad, and some are genuinely interesting, but also terrible because you thought of them.

Before you decide to give up on your creative genius, know that your terrible ideas factory has a real and meaningful purpose. Which is to annoy / motivate your team into taking them and making something greater. When you pitch your ideas to anyone lucky to be having lunch with you, one of three things is likely to happen:

They might say “interesting” but not really show much enthusiasm for it. This means the idea is terrible and boring, but at least they like you. So just forget about it and move on.

Harmonica powered scooters are the future

They might tell you your idea is bad, and go on to enumerate all the reasons it won’t work. Ok, so your idea is probably bad, but I bet you’ve learned a lot from the discussion, and if you’re able to address the points they made then you might want to take another crack at it.

They might take the core of your idea, throw away all your crappy design and come back with a new and improved version. Now this, this is what you’re looking for. Not only is the idea worth investigating, but you’ve now got an ally on the team with whom to work with.

When it comes to ideas, any feedback is good feedback. Most of all, what you’re looking for is the amount of passion in the responses to your ideas. Whether positive or negative, if you end up in a furious debate then you might just be onto something.

And if they come back to you with a better version, then you’ve done well indeed.

5) You’re the first point of contact, because all the important people are busy

As a PM, you’re likely the first point of contact for your team for any general inquiries, or if one of the specialists isn’t around. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but people don’t contact you because you’re important, it’s pretty much for the opposite reason.

There’s a lot of good research into how creatives and specialists need uninterrupted time to get into Flow state, where they are fully immersed in their work and operating at their peak.

Ideally, you’d just lock yourself and the team in a box until the work was done. However, aside from the fact that locking people up is generally frowned upon, this isn’t such a good plan when it comes to staying abreast of developments in your industry or organisation.

Someone has to be interruptible so that the others can get work done safely in the knowledge that if something urgent comes up they will be notified. And that someone is you!

So true it hurts

Hey, those emails ain’t gonna answer themselves!

Learning to live with it

Phew… that brings us to the end of our 5 Hard Truths, and a bit about how to cope with them.

The reality is that the existential crisis never goes away, and it doesn’t get any easier to explain what you do to a new person, but here’s what I’ve found helps own the Hard Truths, and argue for the value that you provide:

New product development is inherently risky and uncertain — you’re not sure if the problem can be solved or if the solution will work. So in this environment, you need someone who is a hedge against all this ambiguity. And that’s you, someone who asks the questions no one else will ask, builds a resilient team, takes the pressure off in a crisis, throws out alternative ideas, and shields the experts from distraction.

There, when I put it that way it doesn’t sound quite so bad does it?

Senior Product Manager at Google, engineer and entrepreneur. I love distance running, traveling, hiking and training my attack cat, Comrade.