Most Product Managers Suck

The next time you grab lunch with a software engineer, ask her what the role of Product Management is. Chances are she can’t tell you what a Product Manager does. It’s not her fault. It’s the fault of the Product Managers she’s worked with to-date because, unfortunately, most of them probably suck.

Product Management is often one of the most important functions in an entire company. Yet, it’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood, sometimes even by the Product Managers themselves. How is that possible?

One reason is that Product Management is multi-faceted and highly cross-functional. The responsibilities are so varied that watching what a product manager does on a day-to-day basis doesn’t immediately clarify the purpose of what one does.

The other reason is that Product Managers indeed fail to add real value and therefore struggle to justify their position. I’ve seen Product Managers fail for a variety of reasons. Here are the most common reasons most product managers suck:

  1. They don’t perform the due diligence to defend their decisions. They think that because they have the title “Product Manager” that their opinions are somehow sacred. No one’s are. Product Managers need to back up each of their calls about prioritization, design, etc., with research and data, a deep understanding of the customer, the user, the market, and an articulate vision.
  2. They perceive themselves primarily as “translators” from business to engineering. This is an utterly obsolete view of the role of Product Management. (In fact, it was never right to begin with.) Both parties speak English. Neither party requires a translator. What they need from Product Management is to align around a unified roadmap.
  3. They have all sorts of excuses for why their product isn’t doing well. Good Product Managers are scrappy and find ways of winning despite issues. If there aren’t enough Engineers, get partnerships. If distribution is failing, create viral hooks in the product. Bad Product Managers find explanations for their product’s failure; great Product Managers find creative solutions to negate their constraints.
  4. They are perceived as “gatekeepers” by the rest of the business. Product Managers who spend all day saying “no” are responding to too many disparate requests from stakeholders. When that happens, it’s the Product Manager’s fault. When they share a clear and cohesive vision — and build excitement around it — stakeholders stop asking for random enhancements that would distract the team. And for the important requests the encounter along the way, great Product Managers can address them by saying, “yes, here’s how”.
  5. They can’t immediately define what success means for their product. I’ll echo Adam Nash here: Product Managers need to know what game is being played on how to keep score. Product Managers should know this so well, they can recite it on demand. Furthermore, they should be able to offer a succinct explanation for why their product is performing well or poorly against those metrics.

In my experience, 90% of Product Managers are guilty of some combination of these mistakes, which leads to mistrust from those upstream and downstream in the development process. This mistrust prevents Product Managers from truly leading. (It’s hard to lead when no one is willing to follow.) That lack of leadership, in turn, results in a failing Product Manager and a failing product.

Despite the myriad of responsibilities placed on Product Management, success usually comes down to one thing: having a crystal clear understanding of its purpose. Never forget that the fundamental role of Product Management is to ensure success of the product in the market. Period.

Visit my web site at foster-innovation.com for best practices, toolkits, and other content intended to help Product Managers succeed.