The 8 Biggest Challenges for Product Leaders

If you lead a product management team, you know firsthand just how challenging it can be — balancing being a member of the executive team to leading your product managers in the day-to-day trenches of creating. All the while delivering an excellent product.

Being a product manager – and leading other PMs – are two very different positions.

The challenges don’t stop there. Your job also requires you to deftly navigate changes in the market, sales fluctuations, and staff turnover. Your role is unique in an organization — and, therefore, uniquely complicated.

Here are the eight most significant challenges facing product leaders.

1. Prioritizing the Roadmap

Building the right product takes more than a strong hunch or mandates from the top of the organization. The building blocks of a great product are a solid foundation for customer feedback, research, and market validation. These invaluable external inputs also help a product leader prioritize a product roadmap.

Believe it or not, product managers (PMs) often establish roadmap priorities without this critical foundation in place. The most significant challenges facing PMs is setting roadmap priorities without real market feedback. We found in our upcoming Product Managers in 2020 report, that nearly 25% of 2,500 PMs from leading companies around the world voted that the most significant product management challenge is setting roadmap priorities without having customer feedback. However, it wasn’t what product managers liked least about their job.

It’s hard to lead in the dark. Setting roadmap priorities without substantive market feedback is risky. And when you are leading not just product development but also a product team, this can feel more than a little unnerving. Product leaders need real feedback to set priorities and create a product strategy.

2. Establishing a Smooth Company-Wide Process

At some point, product management has to work with just about every department across the organization. If you’ve ever had to work the room at a large party, you know it’s much easier said than done. It requires networking prowess, an indefatigable social appetite, and diplomacy—lots and lots of diplomacy.

Negotiating critical relationships across the company and successfully navigating a company’s primary culture, as well as the many unique subcultures within different departments, is an endlessly tricky enterprise. But it’s critical to establish a smooth company-wide process for product development.

3. Facing Engineering Dependencies

In project management, a dependency describes executing a relationship between two initiatives in a particular order. If Initiative A is dependent on Initiative B, then Initiative B must be completed first. This situation frequently comes up in cross-functional teams, where development progress in one area is often dependent on the completion of specific stories or initiatives in another.

Product organizations can feel the squeeze when they face a dependency from the engineering team that doesn’t align with the direction from leadership. Engineering stands its ground with completing Initiative B, for example, while the executive team pushes harder to prioritize Initiative A.

This is where the two primary roles of the product head come together. As a member of the executive team, the head of product management needs to listen to the concerns of the executive team but also effectively communicate the engineering dependency that is at odds. Delivering difficult news diplomatically while respecting conflicting opinions isn’t easy.

4. More Competitive Markets

The marketplace is like a crowded Turkish bazaar. Everyone is clamoring to be seen and heard. It’s noisy. It’s overwhelming. And it’s harder than ever to create a unique value proposition. If you don’t get it right, then you’re just a blur in a sea of similarity. This is where a customer-focused framework and real market feedback play a key role. Knowing what customers want and having a deep understanding of their needs go hand in hand in the early decision-making that ultimately defines a product or service and how it stands out in the marketplace. In a crowded market, your customers recognize themselves in your offering. Meeting their needs and forming a valuable connection.

5. Faster Innovation Cycles

To keep up with external competition and market developments, companies push to speed up innovation cycles. Developing a product and getting it to market too quickly can mean it goes off the rails without a clearly defined customer-focused framework. Product excellence provides a definite competitive advantage and enables organizations to innovate at a faster pace than ever before.

Read five key growth challenges faced by PMs.

6. Managing a Team of Type As

We describe Type A personalities as being competitive, highly organized, ambitious, proactive, or highly aware of time management. Folks that push themselves with deadlines and detest delays. They are generally associated with high productivity.

As a product leader, these descriptors probably feel painfully familiar because they either manifest in your personality or the personalities of PMs on your team. While these attributes, on the whole are often perceived as positive, they can create an intensely competitive, sometimes stressful working environment. Nurturing complimentary characteristics like flexibility and patience can undoubtedly be challenging but necessary for creating a supportive product environment.

7. Coaching Managers

Managing PMs is different than managing other teams within a company. It’s more like leading leaders, many of whom probably identify as Type As. Let that sink in. “We want the individual product managers to act as ‘mini CEOs for their product. To take the lead to guide their products to success,” writes Erik Bjernulf of Tolpagorni Product Management in his post on the challenges of managing product management.
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8. Flexibility in a Tumultuous Market

Change. You can bet on it. In product management, you see change coming at you from every angle. We’re continuously redefining the product landscape, from new competitors squeezing into your territory to the fluctuating needs of customers. The bottom line is this: These changes could very well impact the success of your product and company. Because of this, product leaders must both acknowledge the inevitability of change and respond to it with an agile mindset.


Leading a product team is uniquely complex. But knowing some of the top challenges can help you anticipate potential bumps in the road.

Need more product leadership tips? Download the Free Product Leadership Book