Being a product manager is truly wonderful and diverse job. You get to meet amazing people, learn something valuable every day. You activate both your analytical and creative skills.
But let’s face it, you’ll also get a lot of punches along the way.
Here are several questions you should ask yourself before considering a Product Management career.
Leading a product is 90% “believing before seeing”. It’s an act of faith.
I’m not talking about falling in love with your product, because you should know that it’s your users’ problems you should fall in love with.
I’m talking about feeling confident that you will, in the end, build a good product. Like parents seeing the latent potential of their child — who will eventually become a talented artist or athlete. Or like people who buy an old abandoned house but are able to envision, even before building it, how it can transform into a beautiful villa.
To cultivate that state of mind, you have to be optimistic and hopeful, because progress will be slow and painful. Only you carry the vision and belief of what your product can become.
“It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.”― Oscar Wilde
Working as a Product Manager means navigating through uncertainty and, to be honest, dealing with mess. In fact, most of your job will be to sort things out, figure things out, and clarify things for yourself and all the stakeholders around you.
As the purpose gets clearer, the other part of the job will be to keep entropy as low as possible so you and your team can stay focused.
Building a product feels like assembling an abstract puzzle without having the model nor the precise number of pieces.
So be prepared for a lot of trial and error and the failures that come with it. Failures not only in what you build but also in how you build it: you will fail on tools, methods *and* interactions with people.
Building a product is a marathon. Or actually, a triathlon: you’ll go through problem/solution fit, product/market fit and the death valley in between, and eventually, scale.
So get in shape, be prepared for a long and winding road. Take setbacks for what they are: occasions for learning.
Take short vacations if you need to clear your head and come back with more determination. Don’t confuse perseverance with stubborness. Perseverance integrates learning and pivoting, stubborness doesn’t.
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ― Jack London
Product Managers are not managers in the sense that they don’t manage people. They manage the product. Yet the product is made by and for people, and with other people. This puts us in a position where we have to deal a lot with human nature.
More often than not, the real problems in the process of building a product come from people and communication (or lack of thereof) or power, entitlement, internal politics, people holding information, fear of being bypassed, ignorance, lack of vision, etc.
To paraphrase Hanlon’s razor “never attribute to malice what can simply be explained by ignorance”. Most people want to do good but sometimes they just don’t know how.
You’ll have to ignite honest and genuine conversations to tackle these matters with kind but straightforward questions. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions but never assume anything beforehand.
For people-related difficult conversations, start your direct question from your point of view, not a generalization: state a feeling or an observation. It’s important that you put yourself in a “presumption of innocence” state of mind.
You can start with:
“I have the feeling that this is very challenging for you… am I right?”
“I have observed little signs of tension lately such as …, am I right?”
Same attitude for political situations, information retention, etc., you have to know where everyone stands and kindly, but firmly, express your concerns.
“I need that information to [do x] but I have the feeling / it’s a sensible info / people are reluctant to share it / it’s more difficult to access it than expected. Can you walk me trough what is at stake there? I’m open to do things another way if you show me how.”
You have to be trained and excel at the art of asking questions to get the what the team needs to work on well, but also (and above all) to foster psychological security in the team: there is nothing that can’t be discussed.
While the job mainly consists in enabling possibilities, it’s also a lot about saying “no”: no to unnecessary work, no to more demands, no to complexity, no to fatware, no to sponsors endlessly asking for more features. Learn to say no and start asking “why do we really need it?”.
“No” allows you to stay focus and focus is the key to greater value.
To be able to say no, you must be deeply convinced of the need to say no. Build your case with reasoning, proof and data. Most of the time, people have legitimate reasons to ask for more features. Most of the time you have good reasons to refuse. State the reasons clearly and be firm.
It’s not about avoiding extra work, but about keeping everyone focused on the core of the product.
If you don’t have a clear product vision you won’t be able to guard the backbone of the product and refuse unrelated work. So make sure you have a strong product vision.
If you don’t feel comfortable with saying no, try to postpone the decision i.e., “I suggest we decide on this after we have finished what we are working on right now”. Or use the “later” approach i.e., “Let’s put this in the ‘to be done later’ lane and we will examine it together”.
Most of the time later transforms into never, and not by your call.
Building a product means dealing with a lot of complex subjects, none of which you’ll be an expert of. That is ok, as long as you work enough to understand what you need to understand. But you’ll have to accept working in a vulnerable state induced by ignorance, complexity and uncertainty.
A friend of mine was the CTO of a food company. One day he resigned and started Later, a slow-fashion clothing company. He knew nothing about the fashion industry or the process of making a garment. He worked hard to understand how to make recycled fabric and clothing, he visited textile factories and garment workshops. He took sewing classes. That’s how dedicated you must be.
I recently onboarded as a PM in an industry I knew very little about. It’s only after a full month and lots of reading and talking to experts that I was starting to understand the value chain a bit more precisely. During the first month I felt lost and clueless, and every step forward was followed by a step backward.
While now it’s getting better, I know I still have a lot of exploring, taking notes, diagramming, pitching, rephrasing, refining ahead of me.
You won’t understand everything. But you have to do your best to understand the most. Keep asking questions until you have no more.
All Product Managers are perpetual learners. Very early in their personal and professional life, they come up with learning systems and strategies, sometimes without even being aware of it. Learning to learn is the one key competences a PM must have.
So what are these learning systems? They are very personal combinations of habits (discipline), practice (mastery), tools (efficiency), creativity (making new connections or transposing) and… time.
It can be as simple as taking (and organising) notes, making a one paragraph summary of what you learned at the end of each day, it can be Notion, Trello, or Reagan-like cards — whatever works for you.
All these systems are not about storing information in your brain but rather about analysing and making sense of your insights and experiments.
If you don’t have a personal LMS you should try to set one up. To get started, first identify your learning type : visual (you learn with pictures, movies, diagrams), auditory (you learn with music, discussion, podcasts), or maybe you learn by reading and writing (making lists, reading textbooks, taking notes). Finally some of us are kinesthetic learners (we learn by moving, practicing, experimenting hands-on activities)
Act from there, choose your tools accordingly and start asking yourself those 3 questions
- what have I observed today?
- what does it mean?
- what shall I do now?
As a Product Manager, you’ll get to make decisions. Hopefully lots of them. Decision making is a tricky process. Trust your gut. Most of the time satisficing will do, sometimes you’ll have to maximize your decision. In any case, get good at making decisions, it is what is expected from you.
Be aware that people generally don’t like decision makers: when you make decisions often, and have gotten good at making them — some people tend to classify you as an authoritarian personality, even though you are not.
Just remember that making a Product is all about making decisions. It’s better to make bad decisions than no decisions at all. At least with bad decisions you learn and move on.
When you do something, know that you will have against you, those who would like to do the same thing, those who wanted the opposite, and the vast majority of those who did not want to do anything. — Confucius
Like for a captain of a ship caught in the storm, you cannot let your doubts and fear appear to the crew. Get a safe space where you can express those (fears and doubts) like a product people community, a product journal, but in front of all your product stakeholders you’ll have to keep your shit together and appear calm and trustful in the future.
- Are you optimistic and hopeful? because you will have to believe before seeing.
- Do you like uncertainty? because you’ll have to navigate through it.
- Are you perseverant? because it will take much more time than you imagine and the only way to build it is to build it.
- Are you ready (and do you know how) to ask difficult questions? because it will be a big part of your job.
- Do you know how to say “no”? because it’s the best thing you can do for your product.
- Are you comfortable working on things you know nothing about? because there is a good chance you don’t know everything 😉
- Do you have a personal knowledge management system? if not, build one now to track learnings
- Are you ready to dive deep into human matters and behaviors? because software is easy but dealing with people is hard. Get good at understanding people, not at manipulating them
- Do you know how to make decisions? Are you ready to be criticized (a lot)? because products are dying from no one making decisions (or not enough brave decisions).
- Are you able to inspire calm and confidence even though you’re not? because they will be turbulent times and everybody needs to stay calm.
Thank you for reading! If you like this post, please give it a round of applause and feel free to share it or subscribe to my posts for more on Product Management, Management and UX.