You’re a product manager. You have a difficult job. And it’s difficult not only for the obvious reasons — like the fact that taking a product from nothing but a strategy all the way to a successful market launch can be about as painful as giving birth to a porcupine.

Your job is made all the more difficult by the fact that as a product manager you are constantly forced to — uh, how can we put this diplomatically? — have ridiculous conversations with clueless colleagues and unreasonable customers.

Let’s face it. Most of the people you deal with at work have no idea what a tightrope you walk in order to successfully shepherd your products through the development maze and out to the market. That’s okay, though, because maintaining that 30,000-foot strategic view of your products is your job, not theirs.

Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if once in awhile your co-workers stepped back themselves to see the company’s products from your vantage point? Maybe then they would understand why you can’t always give them what they want, and why sometimes what they’re asking for is — what’s the gentlest way to say this? — nuts!

But they don’t step back, do they? Which means you spend a lot of your day as a product manager fielding absurd requests, shaking your head, and then pointing to a calendar. In fact, maybe “product manager” isn’t even the most appropriate title you could have. Maybe it’s one of these…

What Product Managers Could Also Be Called

  • Manager of Delivering Bad News to People Who Have the Power to Fire You
  • Head of the Ridiculous-Question-Response Task Force
  • Chief of Shouting “NO!”

Tweet This:
“Alternative product manager job title: Chief of Shouting ‘NO!'”

In other words, you’ve almost certainly found yourself in surreal conversations about your products — conversations you couldn’t believe you were having. A coworker, or stakeholder, or investor, or customer was asking for the world. And they wouldn’t accept your perfectly reasonable response to their request. And after a while, you really wanted to be blunt. But you’re a professional, so you couldn’t. But you really, really, wanted to. Right?

We’re with you.

3 Things PMs Want to Say, But Can’t (But Really Want to)

Admit it. You’ve thought these thoughts.

1. Wow. Is it eight months ago already? Because that’s when it would’ve made sense to ask me this.

You’ve no doubt gotten impossible last-minute requests from executive stakeholders or sales representatives to add a new feature to your product, or change the product’s name, or adjust the pricing model, or some other major undertaking they had no business asking for.

And you’ve probably wanted to say, “You know, the time to have asked me this was at the beginning of the product planning process — not today, three days before the release.”

Unfortunately, getting snarky like this won’t help matters, and the only lasting effect will be to drive a wedge between you and a team member you’ll almost certainly need to continue working with to ensure the best possible products come out of your department going forward.

So you have to respond calmly and professionally, explaining without emotion how your resources are limited here in the final stretch of the product planning process. Perhaps you can walk your colleague or executive through your product roadmap so they can see how your strategic plan is on track, and how their request would upend things at a critically important time.

That’s the smart way to go. But it’s okay be thinking, “Really? You’re asking me this NOW?”

2. Do you pay attention to a single thing I say?

A sales rep asks you, “Do we have a competitive comparison chart?” and you send him the link. For the fourth time.

An executive asks, “When is the next release due out?” and you politely tell her the 31st. Just like you did two weeks back. And in an email responding to her question again three days ago. And in that all-company message you sent out just yesterday announcing “Next release set for the 31st!”

A major part of your job as a product manager is to frequently communicate with many teams across your company. And having those conversations with executives, sales and marketing, development, manufacturing and all of the other teams involved in your product’s journey is a good thing.

As long as you’re not having the same conversations over and over.

Our advice? Stay calm and answer that sales rep’s request, even if it’s the fifth time you’re doing so. You’ve got to preserve and even strengthen these relationships whenever you can.

But if you’re feeling dangerous, you can always try to change your colleague’s behavior by making a joke out of the situation. You can smile and say, “That’s the fifth time I’m giving you this info, so I’m going to have insist from now on that every time you ask me a question you have paper and pen in hand.”

They’ll think you’re kidding. But you’ll know you mean it.

3. Because we’re not Apple. And because Apple is a trillion-dollar company.

You can’t really blame an executive, investor or customer for asking for the world. They don’t understand the technical requirements of making your products, or the fact that you have only a few engineers to hammer out the details, or the fact that implementing those cool ideas of theirs would often cost about 100 times your company’s entire budget.

Apple spends zillions of dollars building products and customer experiences that look simple and therefore, to the untrained eye, easy to replicate.

But if they were, then every electronic device would be as slick and user-friendly as the iPad, and every web app would be as elegant as the App Store.

You can’t quite say this to your well-meaning but naïve stakeholder. You’ll probably have to give a dispassionate explanation of how many resources you have and the massive costs it would take to do what they’re asking.

But we won’t fault you if you’re also secretly thinking, “Apple, sure, yeah. It should be no problem making our next product at their level of quality. And hey, this gives me an idea. When we’re ready to release the product, let’s just hold our own media and customer event at the same time as CES.”

It’s Okay to Think It

Unreasonable requests. Absurd questions. Insane demands.

As a PM, you’ll find that these things, unfortunately, come with the job description. And because maintaining excellent communication across your teams is one of the most important components of a product manager’s role, you can’t just respond to these absurdities with the first thing that pops into your head (not even if you filter out the profanity).

You have to respond professionally, always, even to the requests or complaints that are completely nuts. And, just as exercise hurts in the moment but pays off in the long run, when you keep your cool in these frustrating moments you will strengthen your key company relationships and enhance your leadership credibility across your teams — both of which will help you deliver better products.

But while you’re responding professionally, go right ahead and think those hilarious thoughts.


What do you wish you could say to colleagues or customers? Share your thoughts in the comments section. (Just don’t use your real name.)

Post Comments

23 Comments

  • Parth
    July 6, 2017 at 7:51 am

    Thank you for a great article.

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 6, 2017 at 3:59 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Parth!

  • Jenny
    July 6, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    You are speaking to my soul. Thank you for the humor and reality check.

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 6, 2017 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks, Jenny 🙂

  • Anonymous
    July 6, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    very good read.
    insightful.

    Thanks,
    ODB

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 7, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Thanks, ODB.

  • samy
    July 6, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks for letting me know !!! 🙂

  • Anonymous
    July 6, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    I very much like the Apple analogy! Stakeholders and Executives have their expectations high…and their budget low 🙂

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 7, 2017 at 9:48 am

      Thanks! There’s definitely a balance between pushing your team to build great products and recognizing your resource constraints. Unless you’re Apple 🙂

  • Chiku Gardiner
    July 7, 2017 at 10:23 am

    I loved being a Product Manager, but that line from Coldplay’s “The Scientist”: “Nobody said it was easy,
    No one ever said it would be this hard”

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 7, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Haha, so true Chicku.

  • Esse Kaye
    July 9, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    >>> taking a product from nothing but a strategy all the way to a successful market launch<<<
    This, right at the outset, is a major source of PM disaffection. We could develop, learn and help teach the idea that not all products need to be developed in such an outmoded, monolithic, dare I say it, waterfall fashion. It's OK to experiment, test and iterate so we don't become prisoners of our own unrealistic expectations.

  • Shaun Juncal
    July 10, 2017 at 7:55 am

    Hi Esse,

    That’s a very good point. I think a lot of times Product Managers are in the agile/iterative mindset, but it doesn’t do that much good if everyone around them (executives, investors, sales/marketing) are thinking of products as monolithic, unchanging things. The experimental frame of mind needs to permeate the entire company, at least to some degree 🙂

    • Michael Robinson
      July 12, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      Yes!

      Big part of the Product Manager role is helping stakeholders on the “Business” side of the house see how applying Agile/Lean work patterns to their workstream could help them too. And how honoring those patterns relative to expectations of the technical teams will help them get what they need faster than agitating or pulling rank.

      We must be champions of gradual change to establish high-performing teams across the entire organization.

  • Chris Aldrich
    July 11, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    It’s been about 6 years since my last product manager gig, but your post brought it all back! The job I loved to hate, and hated to love! The only way to survive and even, to thrive, is to have a great team to work with…I sure do miss those days.

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 11, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      I hear you, Chris. That’s the bittersweet life of a PM. But a great team makes all the difference!

  • Miles Archer
    July 11, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Perhaps I have no sense of humor today, but this just sounds like whining. Except for the Apple bit.

    • Shaun Juncal
      July 11, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      I prefer the term “justifiably airing my grievances” 😉

  • Anonymous
    July 13, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    I use the tightrope example all the time except it is razor and I thank my lucky stars for my steel soles shoes 🙂

  • Nicholas
    July 19, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    Great article. I happened to read it after getting an email from a sales VP about needing to “accelerate this thing” (pet project not even on the roadmap with no deliverables, or defined scope) in which we couldn’t possible schedule a meeting Tuesday to discuss but we had to clear people’s calendars tomorrow to make sure we don’t lose focus. :/

    Sales: “Let’s learn a partner’s API”
    Me: “… to do what exactly?”
    Sales: “…To know their api and show them we are a good partner.”
    Me: “will we use their API?”
    Sales: “… well, not right now.”
    Me: “if we were to drop our roadmap and ‘learn the API’ what task or end deliverables would development provide?”
    Sales: “… that they’ve learned the API and know it.”
    Me:””
    Sales: ” … we need to show them that we are committed and johnny-on-the-spot.”
    Me: “That’s not exactly how it works; but lets work together on coming up with a plan and see if there is justification and leadership interest in funding the project….” “

  • Pete
    August 1, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Ah – product development… this article could have been titled “3 things that Engineering Managers wish they could say out loud” and it’d still be spot-on.

    • Shaun Juncal
      August 1, 2017 at 3:51 pm

      Yep, definitely a similar story with Engineering Managers.

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