Two weeks ago, Product Management Insider released its annual product management report. As one of the magazine’s regular contributors, I got early access to the report and an opportunity to share my thoughts.
As I was reading the report, one thing stood out very clearly: product managers shared a lot of their frustrations and challenges in it. It could be related to how the questions were asked or the language used in the report, but I tend to believe that it is reflective of how the product managers and leaders who responded to the survey see the world. We all know that it’s not an easy role, so no wonder they had a lot to talk about.
I decided to address 3 of the most common frustrations which appeared in the report, share with you my point of view and a few useful tips for how to address each of them.
But before we get to the challenges themselves, I must say a few words about the mindset for dealing with challenges in general as a product leader.
You Can’t Let Circumstances Stop You
Product leadership is about making an impact through the work of others. As such, you always have challenges and obstacles to overcome, and you constantly need to convince people to work with you. I wrote about it in more detail in my last post about mentoring.
As a product leader, if you will let yourself give up and stop trying when things are not working according to your plan, you will almost always need to give up and it simply won’t work. It’s not even that by the time you give up you got most of your desired outcomes, but maybe not all of them. In most cases, you need to overcome these challenges to get to any outcome at all.
This is one of the qualities that are harder to test in an interview, but I found that it has the most impact on how successful a person would be in any product management role – regardless of their level and other factors.
So my general advice on how to deal with frustrations and challenges is: acknowledge them, and then make it work still. You simply don’t have the luxury of giving in to them. This luxury that others in your company might have, you don’t have as a product person.
Now that we have established that you shouldn’t let challenges stop you from making the impact you want to make, let’s explore a few specific challenges that almost every product manager has to deal with.
I addressed the first challenge below, and the other 2 will be addressed next week in part 2 of this article.
Challenge 1: Not Enough Resources
Not enough resources. Well, dah! Were you ever in a situation when you had enough resources?
Jokes aside, lack of resources comes with the job. One might think that a product manager’s job is to prioritize between the important and unimportant things to do. But that’s not the case. That’s easy. Anyone can do that. A product manager’s job is to prioritize between things that are all very important. And that’s what you need to do here too. If you do it right, it can help you get additional resources. But as I mentioned above, this, too, is on you. No one else to blame.
Prioritize between the most important things
If you don’t have enough resources, you need to invest smartly. My recommendation would be to focus on areas where you can make an impact using the resources you have, instead of trying to make little progress in too many fronts.
Deciding what to do, and specifically what not to do, is hard. I know you want to do more, but you simply can’t. I sometimes ask my customers when they face this problem what would they do if they had a gun pointed at them and were forced to pick only one thing to do. It helps since it forces them to give up on the romantic idea of doing it all. Someone else (me, in that case) already took the first and hardest decision for them – to pick one thing and one only – and now they only need to pick the correct one.
Guess what? Under this little exercise, they all have very clear answers as to what is in and what is left outside of the plan. You know the answer, it’s the courage to make the choice where you need the help.
My recommendation is to play this little game even if you have resources to achieve more than one thing. If I force you to pick one, what would it be? And if you were allowed just one more, what would it be?
It will help you sharpen your thinking on prioritization, regardless of the actual amount of resources you have. It will also help you understand the trade-offs, which is required for the next step.
Share the trade-offs
Fierce prioritization is a must, but you shouldn’t keep it to yourself. Share the trade-offs you are making with anyone relevant, and most importantly with management.
It will help you twice:
First, it will make it easier for them to accept your prioritization (or ask you to change it if they think there is a better usage to the allocated resources). Similarly to the strategic roadmap process, the discussion is yours to steer. It will buy you some peace and quiet on that front, compared to constantly challenging your decisions.
Second, sharing the trade-offs will help you get additional resources if management isn’t willing to make these trade-offs. If management thinks everything is too important, and you explain why you can’t do everything with the resources you have, it puts the decision back on management to allocate additional resources.
Either way, you will be in a better position when trade-offs are shared clearly.
Deliver on what you promised
If you want to be able to get more resources in the future, you must show that you are using whatever resources you currently have well. Here too, it doesn’t depend solely on you. It probably depends mostly on other people. But you are the conductor of this orchestra, and you need to make them all play in harmony together to make great music.
In this phase, as in the general advice, if something doesn’t work as expected it’s your responsibility to make it work. Your success is measured by outcomes, not by effort, so trying hard but not delivering the results is not good enough.
To get additional resources, you need to earn management’s trust that you will use them well. Remember, every resource they are giving you is a resource they won’t be giving someone else. If you want them to place their bets on you, you must make them think you are a good bet.
Get additional resources
Not giving up also means asking for additional resources. Everything I listed above is meant to (1) help you deliver even if you weren’t able to get additional resources and (2) position you as a trustworthy leader who is worth assigning additional resources to.
When you ask for additional resources, make sure you make the case as to why the organization should invest these resources in this project specifically. Saying “this is not enough to do what I need to do” is too weak. No-one will invest in you to do more of what you are already doing.
You need to explain what you can’t do today, that you will be able to do with the additional resources. And you need to explain – from a manager’s point of view – why this additional thing is important. Ideally, you should tie it to the business or at least the top company goals.
To get resources, you want your manager (or their manager, or whomever it is responsible for allocation) to WANT to give you the additional resources. Make them want what you have to offer and ask you to do it. They won’t be doing you a favor, it’s you who is going to help them achieve THEIR goals.
Guess what? Since you already showed that you can do it in the delivery step, you are in a good position to be trusted again.
Next week I am going to talk about two other common challenges product managers are facing: not enough time to talk to customers, and not enough opportunity for experimentation.