Why do product managers fail?

Existential threats, such as the shift from brick and mortar retail to digital commerce, have influenced radical organizational transformations. The digital revolution has sent shockwaves throughout traditional global enterprises and startups alike, and as a result, product management teams have become the tip of the spear for growth and innovation.

To track the pulse of these changes, every year we survey hundreds of product managers and leaders to identify emerging trends and best practices. Our first annual report in 2015 painted a blurry picture of a role not yet embraced across industries and company sizes. But our 2019 Product Management Insights Report casts the role in a new light. Product management is now a bonafide discipline, often with representation in the C-suite. It’s time to consider a new perspective — beyond simply what product managers actually do. What product management mindsets and behaviors are working against organizations’ efforts to remain relevant in the digital age? What are the anti-patterns to success?

We found some notable trends that highlight challenges that prevent product teams from staying ahead of the curve. Here’s what it takes to get left behind:

Bad product managers don’t focus on business impact

Product managers do not build products on their own. They coordinate and direct product development based on user discovery, input from key stakeholders, and market research.

The 2016 edition of our report showed that 45% of product managers came from engineering, while only 27% came from marketing and 23% from a business analyst role. Today, those numbers have shifted dramatically: only 28% come from engineering, while 32% come from business analysis and 22% from marketing.

While nearly half of product managers reported last year that writing SQL was part of their job, this dropped to 31% this year. Writing code is down to 5% from 11%. PMs still doing those activities aren’t focused on being strategic or delivering business value.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, product managers should leave technical work such as coding to engineering teams. At the same time, they should spend more time testing new features, conducting user discovery, having meetings with important stakeholders, and coordinating the efforts of various internal teams. This more holistic focus is ultimately what will help product managers have the greatest business impact in 2019.

Bad product managers don’t do problem discovery and validation

Problem discovery and validation has never been easier. Many new tools and resources have come online in the past few years, such as Alpha and our podcast, This is Product Management, that are precisely designed to enable rapid experimentation at startups and large companies alike.

Product managers who don’t spend sufficient time with users are not only failing to generate actionable insights, they are also failing to accomplish one of their most significant responsibilities: 69% of respondents reported being responsible for customer interviews, while at the same time saying that they don’t have enough time to do them.

After all, most of the best ideas come from customers. Meanwhile, executive orders only account for 16% of the best ideas, but product managers can’t push back on executive mandates without the evidence to show that some other opportunity is more significant.

Few product managers reported spending adequate time experimenting and interviewing users. Eighty percent of product managers reported not spending enough time running product experiments, and 86% of product managers did not spend enough time talking to customers.

Continuous experimentation is an aspiration that requires cultural shifts which cannot be made overnight. To counter cultural inertia, product managers need to get out of the meeting room, where 95% of product managers report spending part of every work day. User research should be a daily activity for all product managers.

Bad product managers are attracted to shiny objects rather than powerful tools and resources

Blockchain may indeed be the future. So may augmented reality or wearable technologies. But good product managers know not to hedge their bets on what the media is obsessed with. Instead, they focus on evaluating and prioritizing tech from the perspective of customers’ current and future needs. To borrow (and update) the architect Louis Sullivan’s famous maxim: Tech adoption follows tech function.

Another way that good product managers learn what technologies are worth their time is by going to conferences, listening to podcasts, and by regularly reading industry resources. Unfortunately, 60% of product managers reported never attending an industry conference. I’ve spoken to countless product managers who have paid out of their own pocket to attend events and conferences that their companies won’t reimburse — getting ahead sometimes means investing in yourself. It’s encouraging that 65% of product managers acknowledge that they do not spend enough time keeping up with best practices and techniques.