5 Harsh Realities for Product Managers

Often here at the ProductPlan blog, you’ll find us writing about why it’s great to be a product manager.

But all good things come with a price. And obviously, a profession this awesome—where you bring products to market that could help thousands or even millions of people—can’t always be easy. Product management (PM) is a challenging career. It’s high stakes. It’s demanding. It can make you want to tear your hair out. Every PM faces one of these five harsh challenges from time to time. But, unfortunately, it’s a part of the job.

5 Harsh Realities for Product Managers

1. It’s always your responsibility.

As a product manager, you’ll collaborate with many teams across your company. But ultimately, you’re the one responsible for your product’s success or failure. You can take the strategic lead, but then you’re going to have to trust other professionals—your marketing team, your developers, UX designers, QA testers—to execute the details.

That means no matter who drops which ball in your product’s development, everyone is going to be looking to you for answers.

You can hand off assignments to your product marketing manager (PMM) and your technical documentation manager, but you can’t mark off those tasks as “done” just because you’ve given responsibility for them to someone else.

When the executives come to ask why the product isn’t succeeding, they’re not going to be interested in hearing that your PMM failed to deliver. When you’re the product manager, everything is your responsibility.

What to do about it:

Learn to keep a close eye on everything related to your product’s progress and request your team over-communicate—from development through market release and beyond.

Read our new report Product Managers in 2020 for insights on product managers ➜

2. Managing your resources will always be a challenge.

One of the odd things about product management is that you’re often strategically directing the work of people who don’t report to you. That’s why managing your resources is always going to be a challenge: technically, they’re never really your resources to manage.

You might see yourself as the CEO of your product (#LiesPMsTell), but that doesn’t mean anyone on your cross-functional team sits under you on the org chart.

You can’t force your development lead to assign more people to work on your product. Certainly, you can’t insist that the marketing department shift its priorities so that it can start working now on your product’s messaging. And, of course, you can’t demand that your executives give you the budget you need to build your product.

In fact, as a product manager, you often can’t demand anything from anybody—at least not from an organizational standpoint. That’s one of the harsh realities of this job.

What to do about it:

You’re going to have to become skilled at product team building, persuasion, and leadership.

3. You’ll need lots of hard skills.

Coders can concentrate on coding. Corporate attorneys can focus exclusively on business law and the regulations governing their industry. But product managers need to develop knowledge and skills across many disciplines.

In addition to the obvious ones—like basic product management skills—product managers need to develop hard skills in:

Research and data analysis

Product management is becoming more data-driven every year. That means PMs have fewer excuses than ever to rely only on their intuition to make strategic decisions.

Product managers need to use metrics to prioritize their product roadmaps. They need to understand how to gather the right data and extract the right lessons from it.


PMs also need a basic understanding of economic principles such as cost-versus-benefit analyses, supply and demand, competitive advantage, and price elasticity.

Without understanding fundamental economic concepts like these, you’ll be leaving important questions unanswered in your product’s strategic planning.

Engineering and development

Before you freak out, the answer is no: we don’t believe a product manager has to be technical. You don’t need to come from a technical background or have a degree in engineering or computer science. But…

If you’re going to help bring technology products to market, you’ll need at least a familiarity with the basics of the technical landscape: How tech products (software, hardware, communication services) are developed, what tools these engineers use, etc.

Plus, learning how technical professionals think can go a long way to earning their trust. And as a PM, you’re going to need that trust.

What to do about it:

Study up! Read books on economics and data science. Take an online course in coding or engineering. Attend webinars or in-person talks at universities on these subjects.

Product management is one of those professions that forces you to become a lifelong learner and that’s what we love about it.

4. You’re going to have product failures.

Google had a big flop with Google+. Samsung had the Galaxy Note 7. And Harley Davidson once released a Harley Davidson perfume. (Don’t believe us? Look it up.)

Were the teams responsible for these products completely incompetent? Lazy? Reckless with their companies’ money? Of course not. We’re talking about Google here.

These product managers tried things. They took risks. They brought new ideas to the market. That’s what PMs are supposed to do. But sometimes, products fail. Some of your products will, too. It comes with the job.

What to do about it:

First of all, accept that failure is part of being a product manager. If you let yourself be controlled by this fear, you’ll never release anything interesting.

And when a product of yours does fail, allow yourself a very short time to mourn, maybe even shout some profanity. Then pick yourself up, remember this happens to every PM, and start mining the experience for key takeaways. Here are some steps to take when your product fails.

5. Your job is never finished.

A designer can turn in a completed project and consider the task finished. When a marketing team turns in its final set of campaign assets to sales, they can all breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate being “done.”

Product managers? Not so much.

Product development leads to market launches, which leads to user feedback, which leads to prioritize the next round of product iterations. Eventually, you’re deciding whether to extend a mature product’s life or build something new. On and on it goes. Forever.

One of the harshest realities that product managers have to learn is that their job is never really complete.

What to do about it:

If you need your marked-as-complete fix, the trick is to find initiatives along the way that you and your team view as finite projects. That way, you’ll regularly have a list of things you can cross off as done, things that can give you a sense of completion and progress.

How to Make Sense of the Firehose of Ideas for Your Product


No job is perfect. This career is going to cause you some frustration and even heartbreak now and then. The good news is, there are a couple of strategies for dealing with this.

First, familiarize yourself with these harsh realities for product managers in advance, so they can’t blindside you. We hope that you’re already in a better position to put these difficult moments into perspective when you face them by reading this post.

And second, you’ll want to find a product management community, a group of like-minded PMs who’ve experienced these frustrations themselves and can offer you guidance for dealing with them—or even just remind you that you’re not alone.