Product management is a great career – if you’re good at it.
If you’re not, it’s perhaps marginally better than lots of other corporate jobs.
Not being “good at it” can mean different things. Product management requires a combination of analytical skills, creativity and business acumen which not everyone can develop. It usually also requires an ability to get things done among groups of smart people with competing ideas, something most people aren’t naturally good at. That’s unfortunate, because without that skill your success as a product manager will probably be capped.
An executive at the consulting firm where I started my career once said to me about our business, “We don’t cut hair, build bridges or move molecules here; we’re in the business of changing people’s minds.” That idea eventually became my quick-and-dirty test for peoples’ interpersonal effectiveness:
Can you change peoples’ minds when you need to?
Dead-End Behavior Patterns for Product Managers
As in any other career, you can get stuck as a product manager if you’re not pushing yourself. Even if you’ve got all the mental horsepower in the world, it’s irrelevant if you can’t get things done with your teams. Here are some of the archetypes to avoid becoming as you develop your career:
The Career Story Writer – Many of us start more or less as requirements analysts, mastering the art of writing clear user stories and specs for developers. It’s more than enough work to keep you busy, which makes it hard to think big picture and spot new opportunities. You’ve got to rise above the daily blocking and tackling and start asking the big questions at some point. It’s not easy, but you need to do it if you want to do anything significant. Start now.
The Wallflower – These are the people who do have substantive ideas but don’t stand up for them. They’re unwilling to risk embarrassment or be in the spotlight. They might share ideas with peers when the stakes are low, but they don’t work at getting “air time” for their ideas. When someone else makes what was their idea was happen, they’re the ones muttering “I’ve been saying we need to do this.” Not a great look on anybody.
The One-and-Done – This is the person who pitches a big idea and then never follows up again. They tried, it wasn’t accepted right away, and they drop it. Remember, most big new ideas aren’t accepted right away, no matter how brilliant the pitch. Maybe it’s not the right time, or the audience needs to hear it again in a different way. Don’t give up easy. Keep it in the backlog and raise it again the next time you’re prioritizing epics. You need to stick up for your ideas.
The Fanatic – This is the complete other end of the spectrum from the One-and-Done. This person is persistent but doesn’t shift tactics in how they go about convincing people. No matter how fervently you believe in an idea, it may just not be possible now. Being annoying won’t help, so be willing to hit pause if you need to. The more ideas you generate, the less likely you are to over-invest in ideas that are unworkable in your present situation.
At times in my career, I’ve been all of these. It’s worth looking in the mirror and asking yourself if any of these descriptions fit you now. If they do, it’s time to change things up.
Now, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that sometimes if you can’t get traction within your company the only answer is take your talents elsewhere. If you really believe in a big idea but can’t move it forward where you are, you need to decide whether to adapt it, drop it, find a new company, or start your own.
The only things more precious than your time are your ideas, and you can’t afford to let them go to waste.
Test new ideas on a panel of potential users and buyers with UserMuse – Start HERE