Product managers, especially the dedicated ones, can sometimes become so consumed with championing their products that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Their perspective on the market, their competitors, their customers, and even the long term product strategy can become skewed. Eventually, many of these skewed ideas can turn into false narratives — okay, lies — that product managers tell themselves.

This isn’t a criticism of product managers. To the contrary, in most cases these little lies arise not out of dishonesty, but rather out of a product manager’s good-faith effort to advocate for her product. When outside forces (executives, investors, customers) inevitably exert pressure on the product’s development, the product manager often clings to notions of how to proceed that she hopes will give her product the best chance of success — even if she’s seen evidence that these notions are inaccurate.

This list is a word of warning to you, our product management reader, not to fall victim to telling yourself these lies as well. In most cases, clinging to such false notions will slow the progress of both your product and your career.

Lie #1: I am the CEO of my product.

CEO of Product

As any experienced product manager will tell you, the product management role doesn’t send a lot of organizational authority your way. Even if your company occasionally refers to you as its “Product CEO,” that doesn’t mean, for example, that you can boss around your CTO and Ops VP. It doesn’t even mean you can add Product CEO to your email signature file. It just means that, ultimately, you’re responsible for your product’s successes and failures.

Tweet This:
“I am the CEO of my product.” #LiesPMsTell

As we said in the introduction, in some ways the more seriously you take your role as product manager, the better, because it means you will be a stronger and more convincing advocate.

Just don’t take the CEO moniker too seriously.

Lie #2: All product decisions need to go through me.

Decisions Must Go Through Me

Hahaha! Good luck with this one.

As we just discussed, many people refer to product managers as CEOs of their products. And with that in mind, it would be understandable to assume this means that you should demand the right to sign off on all product-related decisions. You’re the boss, right? The CEO? But keep in mind, CEOs themselves don’t make all decisions for their companies. They simply can’t. So they delegate responsibility and decision-making authority to the relevant experts across their companies.

You should take a similar approach with your products. Here’s why.

First, in our modern era of rapid product development and a fickle market, how could your team keep up with customer demand and competitors if all product decisions need to run through a single person? You would quickly become a bottleneck, the head of a slow-moving, always-delayed product team.

Second, it’s also important to remember that a key ingredient in successful product management is team-building, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie among your colleagues and a common sense of purpose. Your team needs to become invested in your product development, or they won’t give you their best work. And you won’t generate much team commitment or enthusiasm if you reduce everyone working on your product to mere order-takers.

And third, you’re not the expert on everything relating to the development of your product. Let the technical people handle the technical stuff; leave the marketing ideas to the marketing team. Your key jobs here will be to keep everyone working toward a common strategic goal, and to keep everything on track. You’ll have more success with both if you share decision-making responsibility with your team’s experts.

Lie #3: Our survey says we should do this, so we should do it.

Product Surveys

There are so many falsehoods in this statement that we’ll need to unpack it carefully.

First, just as you are not truly your product’s CEO, you are also not your users’ order taker. Survey data, requests from specific customers and other types of feedback can be invaluable. They can give you great insight into your user personas and new opportunities in the market. But these data cannot function, all by themselves, as the final blueprint of your next product release.

You need to blend these learnings with your own market knowledge, not to mention your company’s strategic vision for the product. Don’t let a set of survey results become elevated to “scientific proof” that everyone then feels compelled to follow. Doing so will sometimes lead you down the wrong path.

Tweet This:
“Our survey says we should do this, so we should do it.” #LiesPMsTell

Second, whom exactly are you surveying? This is a common pitfall for product teams — they send out many user surveys, and over and over again they receive feedback from the same few, highly engaged (or bored?) users. Again, the insights here can be instructive and helpful, but you can’t fall victim to thinking of this subset of your user personas as always representing the truth about your entire user-base or the market in general.

And third, what about your own intuition? What about the fact that users’ needs and priorities change over time, often quickly? If you take your team down a development path based on a (self-selected and small) survey response, and the product won’t be ready for many months or even longer, how can you be sure that even the survey respondents who showed the most enthusiasm for your proposed changes will still want them on release day?

Your role as a product manager is to bring together all relevant inputs, including your own knowledge and intuition, to arrive at the right strategic course for your product’s future. A set of survey results should be just one of those inputs — never the final word.

Lie #4: I’m not in sales or marketing.

sales and marketing

Oh, yes you are.

It’s an odd phenomenon, but many product managers who are proud to call themselves their products’ chief advocate, champion or evangelist will, at the same time, balk at the notion that they are also part of the company’s sales effort.

It’s common for product managers to begin thinking of their products as ends in themselves — works of art that elegantly address needs, solve problems or fill voids in the market. In some ways sentiments like these can be positive because they show just how much a product manager cares about her product. But the darker side of this sentiment is that it can lead to a product manager believing that because she is building something so important, she doesn’t have the time or the need to focus on such crass matters as selling and marketing.

But what such a product manager is forgetting, of course, is that even if the products are indeed works of art, their ultimate job is to act as vehicles for the company to generate revenue. And to do that, those products need to do more than just be built — no matter elegantly. They also need to be marketed and sold. Crass? Perhaps. But true.

Oh, and here’s one more related thought. If you really think you’re not in sales, then answer this: How’d you get the green light from your executive stakeholders to move forward with your product in the first place? How’d you convince your development team to work in the way and on the timetable you needed? And how’d you persuade your key user personas that the product would be just what they wanted? As a product manager, you’re selling to various groups all the time. And if you’ve been a product manager for a while, you must be pretty good at it, too!

So no, dear product manager, you’re not simply on the product team. You’re also in sales. Marketing too. (More reality: You’ll still get just the one paycheck, though.)

Lie #5: I don’t need a roadmap because we’re an agile team.

roadmap agile team

Hahaha! Another good one. You’re a crackup.

So you’re an agile development team? That’s great. But it has no bearing on whether or not your team needs a product roadmap. In fact, if you’re developing products and bringing them to market, there are really no circumstances under which you don’t need a product roadmap. Not if you want your products to be successful.

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“We don’t need a roadmap because we’re agile.” #LiesPMsTell

To say that you don’t need a product roadmap is to say the following:

  • We don’t need a long-term strategic vision for our product.
  • We don’t need to lock in any focus, constraints or priorities for our product’s development.
  • We don’t need any high-level, visual representation of our strategic plan, to share with stakeholders and to communicate to them why we’re developing the product this way.
  • We don’t need a strategic product document that we can refer to at any time throughout development, to gauge whether we are successfully executing on our plan.

Like the other lies we’ve discussed, the sentiment behind this one contains at least a kernel of logic. Most product managers have been forced throughout their careers to develop and maintain product roadmaps using the wrong tools — because the right tools simply never existed.

If you have to maintain and frequently update your product roadmap in an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation — neither of which were developed to be roadmap software or are particularly suited to the task — then perhaps you’d jump at any reason to skip building a roadmap for your products.

But you would be missing out on one of the most powerful strategic tools available to a product manager. A well-developed product roadmap will do all of the things for your team mentioned above — help you craft and communicate a long-term strategic vision for your product, give you a high-level visual representation of your plans that you can share with stakeholders and other audiences, and serve as an ongoing reference point to ensure you are staying on task.


Any lies to add? Share them in the comments below.

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24 Comments

  • September 9, 2016 at 1:03 am

    Great article – I wish I found it and gave it to the VP Product of my last company.

    The PMs truly believed every one of these lies — and they should have been fired for these beliefs too.

    • September 9, 2016 at 10:20 am

      I am sure most of us in product management have either witnessed some of those lies or believed in them at some point or another. 🙂

    • September 17, 2016 at 1:26 am

      Sales and ROI are always the goal no matter how a product is presented. Stakeholders quite rightly insist upon these!

  • September 9, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    So true. Vanity may mask, but product management is about influence, not control. Influence extends to many spokes off hub. Agile equals accelerated, not unguided….80/20 is my view….

    • September 9, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Word.

  • September 9, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Great article! I was once a Founder/CEO and frankly never lost sight of the fact that in each and every instance I was in Sales. Either selling my employees on methods and practices, selling others on our company, and with every meeting with clients selling our quality of services and integrity.

    • September 9, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Glad you enjoyed our post David! I was once told that we all are selling all the time. Enjoy your WE!

  • September 11, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Lie #6: We can do this in phases – Most PMs think that doing something in phases allows them to release half baked unwieldy products into the markets. Phases is fine, but each functionality has to be cohesive in itself to be usable.

    • September 12, 2016 at 4:20 pm

      Good point! The term “MVP” can be interpreted in very creative ways at times. I think the challenge for PMs is to strike the right balance between a solid feature/product release and getting it out of the door quickly and not sit on it for too long.

  • September 12, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Having done the job for many many years I agree and disagree.

    #1 Good points but when sh*t hits the fan from the customer, fingers always point back to the PM as to why there are issues. I have never seen other functional teams fall on the sword.

    #2 Mostly agree. PMs dont care how it gets coded up as long as it meets the requirements. Though often times a designer has the month long view and not the 24 month roadmap view in the choices made.

    #3 Whats a survey? Certainly not paying customer facetime.

    #4 Generally agree but having said this multiple times, it really means other functional teams need to step up in times of frustration.

    #5 Agree you always need a roadmap 🙂

    • September 12, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on our “5 Lies”! We always enjoy hearing what PMs think about our point of view. In regards to your comment on #1: I agree with you. And frankly, I think this is one of the biggest challenges for PMs. On one hand they have limited control over other departments and resources as those people do not report to them and on the other hand they will ultimately held responsible to their products success.

  • September 13, 2016 at 1:14 am

    Another lie?
    I know what my customers needs as they told me 🙂
    Several years in this business, and it looks like the customers are telling you a “path” for doing things, and they very seldom express the “goal”, the real need… I would even say that if a product managers says that, he probably has missed a good chunk of what his job his 🙂

  • September 13, 2016 at 1:43 am

    A good and truthful article in my opinion. As a PM you get all the accountability without the authority to deliver the vision. This is the reason why, as a PM, you need to be constantly marketing and selling the product as well as avoiding the other lies. However, it is not just PMs that need to read this article, all the stakeholders in any product development should read it. As a team they have a collective responsibility to deliver the product successfully.

  • September 13, 2016 at 5:50 am

    Good insights. While there are always nuances to any statement, it’s useful to keep these “potential false negatives” in mind.

  • September 16, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Really good post, recognise all of these lies. Around Lie #3: Even if you develop EVERYTHING you clients tell you they need/want, you will be forever playing a reactive catching-up game, as this is most often things they’ve seen in your existing competitors products. Also, trying to implement the sum of all features in competing products is just not possible. You need your own solid vision and strategy on how to differentiate your product from competition while still using the best of the ideas/wishes that are aligned with this strategy.

  • September 16, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    One theme this article nicely brought out is that Product Management requires a person to be humble, selfless. It’s not about you, it’s about the customer, the market, the product. The point about being in sales and marketing is so true. As Product Manager we are to be ‘always on’ when it comes to selling and marketing our products. That is to internal and external audiences.

  • September 16, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    Yes – very good points – you may want to add this one – from my experience as a product manager and as a manger that over saw product managers – there are product mangers that are uncertain, insecure or I hate to say this – just lazy .. “I never heard of this product – it does not yet have any velocity history! “- PROBLEM – you are never a trend setter or YOU NEVER become a known as a destination for new and unique product – so you always have to compete on price – Yes it is more work to list new products as per marketing and promoting the new unique products – but if you select wisely you can and will become a destination and then your commodity pricing does not have to necessarily under cut your competitors – Once you do this a few times – new vendors will approach you and work with you – customers will come for new and exciting product – and also buy the commodities at a fair price –

  • September 16, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    I think the role and authority of the product manager varies greatly from one organization to the other.
    Lies are always wrong, no doubt.
    The degree to which decision making and consequences point to the PM can be high and far reaching within the company as a whole.
    Product management decisions are not made in a vacuum and have direct cross-functional consequences up and down the supply chain.
    When done right, it’s a great job to be in.
    And that’s no lie.

  • September 20, 2016 at 7:39 am

    My global product manager has these above qualities except the last one as he doesn’t know agile 🙁

  • September 20, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Great article. I particularly dislike the trend of calling Product Managers “the CEO of the Product”. I think this tagline is very harmful for the profession, specially for aspiring Product Managers looking to understand what the role is all about.

    To add to the conversation, I’d like to share an article I wrote on the topic.
    http://techproductmanagement.com/ceo_of_the_product/

  • September 21, 2016 at 5:31 am

    As an veteran PM – some thoughts
    #1 – Hahaha – closer to a COO than a CEO, ownership and accountability are never aligned, and you’re typically competing for resources just like everyone else in the firm. And the ‘positive’ attribute of being responsible for the success/failure of the product rarely is positive, zero to limited resources come with this responsibility in most cases – if successful, every group you engage with will be attributed success, if a failure, the product will vanish without a trace, with smart PMs merging it with more successful efforts.
    #2 – Another good laugh – but even the appearance of control is rarely in your hands. In many cases product decisions still require consensus or approvals, and any one of your partners (and you’ll have many) can derail any feature decision or roadmap directive. This is what makes product management exciting and challenging though – the engagement with people, influencing their mindset to drive the broader value. It takes perseverance, project management and lots of good salesmanship to execute well or efficiently.
    #3 – Voice of the customer is great – when you have time for it and can capture it accurately. This requires patience, as many will say let’s find a faster horse before knowing the car is a new and better way to travel. This requires introducing innovation, education and understanding the underlying needs of the customer, not just what they respond to in surveys and focus groups.
    #4 – Yes, yes, yes – this is always the case. Your whole focus still needs to keep in mind the greatest business tenet – We are in business. Shareholder value. Revenue Growth or Cost Reduction. Taking a risk with resources, we are obligated to sell that risk to the organization, partners, customers, and even to yourself. You are definitely in sales and marketing, but you’re also in every other facet of the business as well (just not as a CEO) from distribution to customer service and development.
    #5 – It would be entertaining to see what would happen without a product roadmap – and even if you think you don’t, you probably have one developed intrinsically. The product evolution, the project path, and what is intended to be built will be developed by you or for you. The best PMs own this and with the limited control they have, try their best to keep this under their purview. This includes the business case for why your product is important, why you should have resources, and why you should have a job at the company. Lose the roadmap (or support for it) and you lose the product.

    • September 21, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      Hi Ananda, thanks for sharing this thoughtful comment. Great insights!

  • October 15, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    Perhaps these are indeed all lies. But, when they come down from your management chain to you, they are Vox Dei. You can be a heretic and get a public burning for it, or join another church. Trying to reform from within is not likely to yield much; established churches are no so much reformed as superseded.

  • October 19, 2016 at 12:58 am

    Great article – thank for sharing!

    Another lie that PM’s often carry and as well communicate in my experience is about the impact of resources on delivery result. You often hear PMs say “just give me more resources and the product will be perfect”
    Experience tells that the perfect product delivery is a result of hard prioritization. All things that get added to the really necessary parts will weaken the final product as they create clutter and put the focus away from the parts that really matter, both in development, massaging and sales. So it is about getting enough resources to both deliver the MVP but as well trigger the needed sense of urgency and focus.

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