5 Lies Product Managers Tell Themselves

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,  product management lies — that we tell ourselves.

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.

Product Management 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.

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“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.
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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.

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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.

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“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.)

Product Management 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 product management lies to add? Share them in the comments below.