You have read all the books and you are ready and energized to dive into real product management. You land a job and get to work, totally ready to be an outcome-focused, non-date-driven, research-first “good” product manager (maybe even a “great” product manager!). But gradually, you find that your leadership team expects a Gantt chart roadmap. And your “outcomes” are pushed back into “features”. And your sales team needs launch dates! And you have no time for research.
You feel defeated. Are you actually a bad product manager? Why can’t you be what the books describe?
This experience is all too common in both tech-first and tech-enabled companies and your experience is valid – there’s nothing bad or wrong about it. Given the different environments that can exist, it’s actually more likely you’ll be in a less-than-ideal PM situation. But you can still be a good PM in these environments. Here are some common scenarios, why it’s happening, and how to improve your situation.
Scenario #1: Your CEO controls the vision and dictates the roadmap
If this is your situation, it’s likely your CEO (or CPO or CTO) hired you to exclusively execute. They want someone who can “manage the development team(s)” at a lower price tag than an engineering manager. They don’t actually want your opinion and will listen to your research results with skepticism. You can’t convince leadership to add any solutions to the problems you’ve identified to the existing roadmap.
This is the tough PM spot that probably leads most easily to burnout. Being creative and having ideas only to see them repeatedly shot down leads to a lot of frustration and feeling powerless. It’s also extremely common, especially in small startups, or any environment where the founder or board is heavily involved in the product. Generally what your leadership team really wants is someone to execute, so you have two options. You can either go along with their vision and focus on shipping as best as you can and work to gradually introduce your own ideas as the company grows. Or you can quit and find a more supportive environment.
Scenario #2: Your company measures performance on velocity or number of features shipped
Every quarter, you’re asked to report on how many features you delivered, or what the velocity of the team is, and rewards are handed out accordingly. \This is the definition of a feature factory. You get no points for simplifying the product or making incremental improvements.
This pops up most commonly when your leadership doesn’t really understand software development or is coming from a legacy product perspective (for example, your company used to make cars, and now makes cars and a mobile app). In this situation, you are usually in a big corporate environment and you have an opportunity to move incrementally toward value-based decisions, away from raw feature counts. For an individual PM, a possible strategy is to follow the rules (get features shipped), while also doing more side-of-the-desk work that isn’t focused on feature development. You will need to get your entire team on board with this idea though, especially if their pay could be impacted. If your entire team is dedicated to making a holistically better product, it can be a rewarding experiment that can spread to other teams and eventually make a change at the leadership level.
Scenario #3: Your company requires you to create a 2-year roadmap
The most painful situation for a PM is getting stuck between “great PM work” and “needing a 2-year Gannt chart roadmap.” For big initiatives, a 2-year view makes sense. But as COVID demonstrated, a lot can happen from year to year that will make your entire plan obsolete. So how do you reconcile “reacting to the market, being agile, and constantly learning and iterating on the product” with this demand for 2 years of predictability?
Again, there’s an opportunity here to “play by the rules” while also make small improvements for yourself. Can you plot out the big initiatives over 2 years, and in a smaller setting plan for those incremental improvements or updates that make big differences to your customers? One strategy is to focus your “public” roadmap on the one or two initiatives most important to leadership and create a team roadmap of all the other initiatives and ideas you want to explore. You likely won’t flip over to a “now-next-later” roadmap in these environments easily, so find a happy medium between what makes sense and what your leadership team needs to be comfortable.
Scenario #4: You aren’t allowed to talk to customers
Whether because Account Reps are overprotective, or someone has embarrassed the company in the past, this is a common complaint for UX and product. How are we supposed to understand customer pain points without talking to the customers?
Not being able to talk to customers is a more changeable position than some of the others on this list, but it’s best to approach it as a long-term goal for your team. The first issue to address is not having the feedback – even if you don’t talk directly to customers, you can use proxies to fill this gap. If your CS team guards their relationships, have them ask for feedback and forward emails to you with details. You can train your account folks to do interviews and funnel those details to you. You can also leverage your product analytics to get insights into customer behavior. Focus on building relationships with your CS people and over time, they will invite you to attend their calls, and then eventually, you will be the one leading those calls. This problem is usually a trust problem, and easing into a trusting relationship with your account people is the best approach. Demanding access to customers won’t get you very far, so be patient and play the long game.
Scenario #5: You’re just too busy to do all the great PM work you want to
Are you shifting from meeting to meeting all day long? By the time you’re done aligning stakeholders, you have just enough time to put in some tickets and get the sprint board updated before you are exhausted and it’s 5 pm. All the “great” PM activities never seem to make it onto your day’s agenda.
The PM job is enormous. Arguably, it’s way too much for one person. We can’t constantly be creating tickets and facilitating engineering work while also launching our already developed products while also planning the upcoming work and doing thorough research.
If this is you, take stock of which phase you’re doing most of – it’s usually 2 out of 3 phases. If you want to do more in that 3rd phase, you have to outsource some of the work from the other 2 phases – instead of writing tickets, have your senior devs work with junior devs on what tasks are needed for a particular initiative in a spike document. Or instead of being on every research call, have UX summarize conversations for you so you can read what happened instead of attending 10 hours of meetings.
Sometimes this means letting go of something you used to really enjoy, but if you want to grow as a PM, it’s the best path forward. You have power over your calendar, so blocking time as needed and curating what and who to focus on can be a powerful tool to help overcome the “too busy” problem.
Being a product manager is no easy feat
The role is so big and encompasses so many responsibilities. There are ample opportunities to have expectation misses between an individual product manager and a company’s leadership. This has touched on only a few of the most common situations. Having honest and vulnerable conversations with your manager or leadership can be helpful to find the boundaries and the opportunities. It’s more likely than not that your product environment won’t be what the books and thought leadership describes. This doesn’t mean you should give up! There are lots of opportunities for your product work to be impactful and make a difference to your customers even if it isn’t “by the book.”
About the Author
Emily Patterson is the Director of Product at Pareto Intelligence, a healthcare big data startup in Chicago. A veteran of the Chicago tech scene, she's specialized in B2B SaaS for 10 years, in healthcare, health insurance, immigration, and security. She has an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. She is enthusiastic about beaches, reading, running, documentaries, jigsaw puzzles, and adventures with her 2 little girls.