24 Lessons Learned in my First 3 Years as a Product Manager
I first ventured into the realm of product in November of 2012, and it’s been a love affair ever since. Has it been smooth sailing? Certainly not. In fact, in that time I’ve done APM/PM/PO work in nearly all scenarios that exist at a mature Fortune 500 company. I’ve built products from scratch, inherited lengthy roadmaps, worked with remote teams, co-managed roadmaps by proxy w/ 3rd party vendors, hired and formed new teams, joined existing teams, worked on teams of 3, worked on teams of 15+, practiced “dirty scrum,” practiced modified waterfall, worked on employee-focused products, worked on products that served millions of customers daily, had success measured by revenue, had success measured by engagement, and so much more. Plus, I’m sure my next job will add yet another wrinkle to my already non-pristine resume.
That being said, the one constant throughout this crazy journey is that I’ve been humbled at every turn. There is always something to learn, and that’s what makes me truly love the work I do as a Product Creator. I thought that as we wind down 2015, it might be appropriate to reflect and share some of the biggest lessons that I’ve kept with me. I hope you enjoy them!
1- Stop dealing in absolutes. In the beginning, you tend to make hard assertions about the world as you know it because you’re so passionate about bringing your ideas to life; however, the longer you’re in product the more you learn that your ideas, instincts, opinions, etc. are merely a starting point. Data and testing will fill in the rest of the map.
2- Have strong opinions, weakly held. This advice, often credited to Paul Saffo, is a wonderful mantra for Product and beyond. Along the lines of the previous bullet, this is all about being open to feedback and the possibility that you’re wrong. The best teams I’ve been on all have members that come to the table with strong opinions & perspectives, but since they come in a spirit of service to the customer and not themselves, they crave collaboration over credit.
3- Less time planning doesn’t mean you seek less advice or avoid due diligence. Being agile doesn’t just mean that we throw everything at the UR & UX teams to test. It means that you have more pressure as a PM to pre-vet ideas so that your team isn’t wasting their time.
4- It is no one’s responsibility to listen to my ideas until I can convince them that they’re worthwhile.
5- Ego is a crutch. I find that often the biggest thing that gets in the way of cooperation and learning is pride, resulting in apathy towards improvement.
6- Aggressively pursue understanding. This doesn’t just apply to staying on top of data and research, but to relationships as well.
7- No one can see your intent, they only see your outputs. Make sure they match.
8- Always think within context (don’t fixate). It’s easy to get caught up in our own little spheres of Product. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how well or poorly things go in your specific area at one time or another, it’s only a piece of a larger ecosystem that consists of more product lines, research teams, customer service, marketing, retail ops, and much more. Keeping this perspective (especially at the team level) helps to maintain your focus on being a star roleplayer, and not just a star. After all, a rising tide raises all ships.
9- Relationships are the gas that powers the car. Lower octane may get the job done, but it’s worse for the engine in the long-run.
10- Always learn a lesson. It’s the only way to ensure success.
11- Just say it. Be open and honest with everyone from your team members to your customers. It helps to set accurate expectations, which leads to happier stakeholders. A transparent PM is the best kind of PM.
12- The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that you are always right. The second biggest mistake you can make is not investigating whether or not you are.
13- Default to ownership.
14- Deflecting praise often has the opposite effect. I’ve found that those who transfer credit to their teams and exercise servant leadership are typically the ones who never lack in accolades — probably because they’re not wasting time & energy on seeking validation.
15- Purpose is only an effective motivator if there is action behind it. We can talk all day about purpose, vision, and tenets, but if you’re willing to selectively apply them or abandon them in pursuit of a specific metric, you can kiss your credibility goodbye.
16- The foundation of a great working relationship is vulnerability.
17- It’s not about winning, it’s about knowing when to stand up for the right things. I have worked with tons of PMs who suit up for battle every time they step into a meeting. They were awful to work with, and you always wondered if they were actually interested in having the best product out there, or if they would rather “win” every conversation. Know what really matters. Speaking of which…
18- …Don’t waste your time on stuff that doesn’t matter.
19- Always aim to be the person with the best notes. This one was a big adjustment for me, but it’s been crucial to my development in Product. If nothing else, it helps to make sure you’re locked-in during meetings.
20- Great hiring solves 10x more problems than you estimate it will. If you ever have the chance to build your team, BE PICKY. Don’t choose based solely on skills. It’s much more important to surround yourself with avid learners and fierce cooperators than to have a group full of superchickens.
21- Nothing crushes a team’s spirit & focus more than having a leader with no backbone. I’ve heard Product Management described as being a “shit umbrella and credit funnel.” I love that mentality because it creates the expectation that you’ll need to do some tough stuff on a regular basis. Being a Product person doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to dictate vision; it means that you are responsible to protect it — and your team — from anything that will harm either one. So, be prepared to stand up to superiors when you need to. It will not only earn you points with your teammates, but frankly, it’s your job.
22- Collective accountability is a powerful thing. Making a team accountable to you or your boss is easy, but often ineffective. If you can instill a sense of accountability within the group to each other, you’ll be amazed at the results. Add shared accountability to the customer into the mix, and your probability for success skyrockets.
23- Constantly mentor yourself out of a job. If you’re scared that making your teammates better threatens your value, you’re not doing enough to improve yourself.
24- Finally, and maybe most importantly- You are not above (or even separate from) your team. In product, you always feel a little bit like Kal-El, meaning that you’re “a child of two worlds.” As an APM, you’re taught that you’re supposed to be the bridge between the mythical worlds of “the [INSERT PRODUCT NAME] team” and “the Business.” Unfortunately, this can lead to an overinflated sense of importance, as you convince yourself that you’re one of the only people who could possibly fill both pairs of shoes. Spoiler alert though- your team isn’t impressed, and you aren’t the only one who can do this. You simply have roles on your team just like anyone else, and at times, those roles might happen to be ‘translator’ or ‘negotiator.’ So remember that you “leading the team” is similar to a horse trainer leading a thoroughbred to the starting gates before a race. You’re simply the facilitator for greatness, helping your team and the business all reach their highest potential.
I’d love to hear some learnings from other PMs! Please help build out this list by sending over some of your own :)