The Topmost Mistakes Product Managers Make (and How to Avoid Them)
“Move Fast and Break Things” was once a battle cry within many technology industries, notably that of Facebook. This motto attempted to convey that making mistakes was a natural and expected byproduct of rapid innovation. Not surprising, many of these same industries abandoned this risky slogan about as quickly as they adopted it.
While these industries were moving fast and breaking things, they were growing and developing their product management organizations. Perhaps these organizations grew too fast or failed to clearly define their PM roles, because, as things slowed down, the mistakes continued. And many mistakes continue to this day.
I was intrigued by this observation and decided to do something about it. Having had a successful leadership career in product management, I decided to give back with the creation of a presentation titled “The Topmost Mistakes Product Managers Make and How to Avoid Them.” It was a hit, so I took it to a product management conference where I found myself voted into a keynote presenter role. I’ve been delivering it ever since. The goal has been to help product managers and the companies that hire them to acquire a stronger understanding of this extremely dynamic and valuable role.
Although I have identified more than two dozen mistakes, here are a few universal entries that, when addressed, can have a huge impact:
- Failure to recognize the importance and diversity of the product management role
- Failure to produce and share a product roadmap
- Failure to learn from past mistakes by sharing knowledge
- Failing to identify or understand the minimum viable product (MVP)
- Mistaking “incrementalism” for innovation
Let me explain these a bit and offer some suggestions on how your organization can avoid these pitfalls.
RECOGNIZING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PM ROLE
The definition of product management is fairly broad and may involve product identification, planning, development, marketing or more. One thing is certain, though: product management is a diverse role. Organizations who haphazardly hired PMs because it was the buzzword of the day likely experienced trouble. Since a PM is actually many different roles rolled into one, the best organizations tend to spend a lot of time defining the role and selecting people with a blend of collaboration skills, strategic vision, and charisma. Organizations who find someone really good at one thing and then advance them to a PM role have likely faced some peril, too. Good product managers are product experts, managers, owners, evangelists, forecasters, communicators, arbitrators, and judges. This is a tall order and the right person in the right role really matters.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A PRODUCT ROADMAP
I have been absolutely stunned at the lack of discipline and awareness surrounding product roadmaps. A roadmap should represent a vision— clear or aspirational— of where a product is headed. Both PM’s and their bosses produce vague excuses as to why they don’t have or can’t share a roadmap, citing secrecy or wishing to avoid speculation, etc. If an organization cannot figure out how to share some form of direction for a product, a disaster looms. Even a poorly sketched roadmap can help guide future decisions and determine a strategy. At the very least a roadmap gives people an idea of what’s next. A roadmap does not have to be shown to the public— as some companies like to do— but it should be shown, shared, and updated internally on a routine basis.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Many organizations talk about learning from past mistakes but rarely make this part of their culture. Sure, the C-level folks won’t forget a big misstep of the past, but down in the ranks where it matters most, past mistakes are rarely mentioned unless they were a legendary or humorous blunder. So it’s no surprise, then, that many project teams within larger organizations make the same mistakes repeatedly. This is costly and unfortunate and would be easily solved by reviewing past mistakes as a new project begins.
IDENTIFYING THE “MVP”
The concept of identifying a minimum viable product (MVP) is a fairly new concept that involves identifying the most critical functionality or attributes of a product that meet a market need. When companies buy into a product vision for the first time they have a tendency to hang on tightly to a glorious vision of success. Because the product vision usually outlines a perfect product, many fail to step back and tease out the core concepts that make the product meaningful in the first place. A simple example might that of a company creating a new calculator. Their vision is for a machine that can manipulate numbers in thousands of complex ways. In reality, though, 99.9% of the product can be delivered as soon as adding, subtracting, and multiplication is available. Meanwhile, many companies will delay launching a product until it’s 100% complete according to their original vision, causing it to arrive late or miss other opportunities. In today’s world, consumers offer a lot of forgiveness if a product is labeled a beta or if they feel they can provide feedback to a product in progress. Sometimes it’s better to launch early and then add new features later. A clear roadmap will help ensure an improved product is coming soon.
INCREMENTALISM VS. INNOVATION
In today’s media-saturated world, the most trivial of new product features get pumped-up to be much more than they really are. The marketing powerhouse at Apple, for instance, can make the addition or subtraction of a button sound like the most remarkable engineering achievement accomplished by mankind. Perhaps because we live in this overhyped culture, many companies fool themselves into thinking their incremental product improvements are innovations. Ultimately, this leads to disappointment in customer adoption and sales. Companies would do well to step back from time to time and ask themselves some tough questions. Is this product going to be disruptive? Where and to whom does it add value? Does it actually meet a need? Can we charge more for it? Has it been done before? If the answers to these questions are mediocre, chances are it’s just an incremental improvement. While this may still be important, it offers a chance to reset internal expectations if they have gotten out of hand.
Finally, I’m frequently asked if there is one mistake that is more important than all others. Indeed, I believe there is. I didn’t list it here because it is so universal: communication, or more precisely, failure to communicate. Nearly any product management mistake can be solved or prevented with frequent, thoughtful communication.
Choosing the right talent for your product management team and creating and sharing a product roadmap are two great steps towards avoiding many mistakes. Identifying critical product attributes and doing an occasional sanity check will help you avoid many pitfalls as well. However, nothing beats meaningful conversations about what your product is and where you want to take it, then sharing this information broadly within your organization.