The struggles of product management

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

I have experienced the product community as a restless group; a group that strives to stay up-to-date with new techniques, reads a lot to collect different viewpoints which will be filtered and applied ad hoc, attends relevant workshops or conferences, and is focusing on improving or enhancing their soft skills.

The function of product management isn’t well defined, and it differs from organization to organization, person to person, industry to industry. Little to no guidance is offered to those who just joined the function, except for a privileged bunch which has landed with a manager that understands product management, has the time and willingness to explain to them the basics and create for them a career path which will allow them to evolve. The vast majority of product professionals, had to find their way alone, and learn the ‘hard way’ by experimenting, failing and learning from their mistakes. It felt like a slap in the face at the time, but a few years ahead, they are thankful for those lessons, because those helped them grow and mature in the function.

There’s no better way than learning by doing. It’s more helpful, though, when you get support. A coach, a mentor or a manager that can help you understand how to tackle challenges, and allow you to apply new techniques. Someone who is going to support your growth path and goals. All in all, someone who will be there for you no matter what.

For someone new to the function, there are way more challenges than someone tenured. However, there’s a set of challenges a product professional has to deal with, no matter how tenured they are. The product professionals have to deal with a lot of challenges, take decisions, but also manage expectations. It’s a function that is being ignored for its importance, but still bears the responsibility if something goes wrong. A lot of synthesis, decision making and message decoding are everyday elements.

Yet, it’s a function that can be very self fulfilling, in spite of all its ups and downs. A never-ending learning journey. And, in the end, it’s the journey that matters.

HiPPO effect [Highest Paid Person’s Opinion]

I have rarely met a product professional who hadn’t had to deal with what is called the HiPPO effect. In that case, executives may make decisions without using data or knowing the customer needs. Those are cascaded down to the product managers and their teams, who need to figure out the best way to accommodate those, often entailing changes in priorities within steep deadlines.

If they are lucky, they may have the time and budget to do research and accommodate the request of upper management is the most efficient and effective way. But, unfortunately, that is rarely the case.

Even some basic research can be very beneficial. It can allow them to frame the problem statement in a clearer way and identify better solutions. Bottom line, there’s no way to escape the HiPPO effect. However, there is a way to make a good outcome out of it.

Influencing without authority

A topic frequently discussed among product professionals is the ability to influence without authority. A product manager needs to work with multiple functions, inspire high quality deliverables and all that, without managing teams directly. In a nutshell, a product manager needs to be seen as a leader by those who work with them; a person who inspires vision and is genuinely interested in the teams’ well-being and challenges those face.

By getting to know people, listening to them, and forming deeper relationships, they know what to expect; foresee reactions and attitudes, and prepare for objections rather than taken by surprise. People who trust you will be much more willing to follow you. Deep, long-standing relationships allow you to ask for occasional favors.

That is not the only way to go. Having expertise and sharing information are also important influential factors. Nonetheless, it’s important to build engagement and take everyone along the trip. Try that; the outcome will reward you.

Lack of time

Product Managers who want to balance their time between the users, their internal stakeholders and their teams, often find themselves facing a time constraint. There’s only a few hours every day a product manager can fit all their activities in, and that time needs to be balanced among all important tasks they need to perform. Of course time management and a sense of prioritization are very useful. However, in practice, product professionals may find it very difficult to find the balance.

They want to spend most of their time understanding your customers, their needs, their pains, and their journey. And it is very important to do so if they want to offer them one of the best options that may solve their problems. However, they also need to communicate their findings with the internal stakeholders and teams, get their buy-in and ensure engagement.

Limited access to data

A never- ending problem product professionals face. When referring to data, most professionals think of analytics. But, that’s only a subset of those. What about user generated content, customer service logs, NPS, interviews, usability tests, etc.? And if we take it a step further, what about mapping all those into a 360o customer view?

Data is still underestimated within organizations. There are still professionals who choose to ignore it, and even worse, make decisions on gut feeling. Unfortunately, there’s also a big set of data that isn’t even recorded. By introducing the importance of data, using it as argumentative points and challenging directions on that base, is a stepping stone. There’s only a limited aspect of that approach you can challenge.

But, how can I tackle those challenges?

There’s no golden rule on how to tackle the challenges above. What I have come to realize is that by clearly communicating the vision, strategy and taking your stakeholders along your journey, is already a big win. The more you build engagement and trust, the more eager the multi-disciplinary teams are to support you and your goal. Managing expectations and being transparent has never harmed anyone.

As product professionals, we can keep on advocating product management and the users. By taking our colleagues along our journey, we pave the way towards defining the product function better. And eventually, getting the support and mandate the function requires.