10 Ways Product Managers Fail

By Brian Lawley, Pamela Schure

This list takes a tongue-in-cheek look at things product managers do that have caused them to fall short or fail at producing their product on time and at a profit.

Talking more than listening

If you’re a product manager and you aren’t accustomed to being quiet and listening to what customers, engineers, salespeople, and executives are really saying, you’re in trouble. If you talk too much, you may miss the nuances behind what team members are saying, and you may be intimidating fellow colleagues out of talking altogether. Who wants to disagree with the product manager who thinks she is smarter than everyone else in the room?

If this scenario describes you, start practicing active listening constantly. If you still have trouble giving others the floor, take a people skills class to learn how to better communicate, negotiate, and influence. Remember, silence is much more powerful than chatter.

Focusing only on features

Product managers love products. They live for products. And their tendency, particularly those who come from a technical background, is to spend every opportunity on sweating the small details with their friends, the engineers. That’s what’s comfortable.

Don’t make the mistake of zeroing in on the trees and missing the forest. Of course, you need to spend the right amount of time making sure the product is right, but you also have to step up and be the strategic leader for the product to ensure its success. Be in contact with all the groups involved with making the product a success. Go find customers to talk to. Reach out to salespeople. If you don’t do the long-range work of a product manager, who will?

Not continuing to learn

Product managers come from all different backgrounds, bringing varied skill sets to the job. Though one whose history is in sales may excel at communication, another from an engineering background shines at developing product features. Both may lack certain product management skills because of the focus of their prior occupations.

Knowing you have gaps in your skill set is fine; just continuing with what you know and not enhancing all the skills that build a successful product manager isn’t. Because many companies don’t offer training in the product management arena, it’s up to you to improve your skills (which you’re well on your way to doing by buying this book — bravo!). Look into taking a product management training course that covers the entire product life cycle. No matter where you are in your product management career, this kind of training boosts your product management skills.

Reinventing the wheel

Product managers spend a huge amount of time doing things like creating their own templates, starting documents from scratch, and even attempting to create a product management process from scratch for their company.

Remember that these documents and templates are all things that others have done already. Leverage those people’s efforts and save your energy for other parts of the job. A great place to start is the Product Management Office Professional from the 280 Group.

Avoiding seeking help

If you don’t have a coach or a mentor (or at least a supportive boss who’s willing to teach you), then you’re going to make the same mistakes that many other product managers have made. Instead of forging ahead blindly, tap into the insights of others that have gone before you and get a direct link into what works and what doesn’t.

Hire a coach or enlist a mentor to guide you, and you’ll put your career on an upward trajectory. With a mentor, someone’s always got your back, and you have a sounding board whenever you have questions or want to break in a new idea.

Digging in and refusing to compromise, ever

One of the most common situations between product management and other departments is where one side refuses to give any ground in a disagreement. You have to stand your ground and insist things be a certain way some of the time. But if you do it all the time, the other side will realize that you aren’t a reasonable partner to work with. If you’re not prepared to compromise, why should others? Eventually, you’re liable to end up with an unpleasant and unsuccessful stalemate.

If you find yourself digging in, start using your active listening skills. Make sure you really understand the situation and, if necessary, get advice from your manager on the best way to tackle the difficulties you face so that both parties can feel somewhat successful. You need to win the whole war and get a winning product to market. Winning one battle with an internal department won’t get you there.

Never visiting customers

If you aren’t getting out to see customers, holding a customer council, or communicating with customers by phone or email several times a month, then you’re going to be out of touch with the reality of the market. And your credibility with your team members will be much lower. They won’t see you as owning the voice of the customer, and you won’t be the true advocate for what customers need.

Set specific goals like talking to customers twice a week. When you get out of the meeting or off the phone, summarize your conversations. Then send your notes to the engineers and extended team. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when your engineers come to you to find out what customers will value the most in terms of features or implementation. What a win for both the engineering team and you.

Not owning the whole product

No one in your company has the complete 360-degree view of your product that you do. You know everything about it: competitive environment, strategy, challenges, support and warranty policies, pricing, how salespeople are representing it, and more. As such, no one else can drive to ensure that the whole product offering is in place. This is far beyond just the product’s feature list.

Creating the whole product offering means moving beyond the comfort zone of your strict job specification and challenging others outside the traditional sphere of influence that the organization has set for you. Challenge them to join you and deliver on the whole product solution by adding special support and training products, for example. Then your customers will truly love your product. Once you own this larger whole product responsibility, you’ll be perceived as a leader.

Adopting Agile but losing overall business focus

Agile development has huge benefits and can be great for the right products. However, most product managers are thrust into an Agile environment without knowing how this approach dramatically changes their jobs or how to be effective.

In this situation, take a course on doing great work with Agile development teams and learn the skills of both an Agile product manager and product owner. This training is especially important if you’re also assigned as the product owner in addition to the product manager. When you’re in your new role as a product owner, don’t end up focusing all your time and effort on the product development process. Your responsibilities extend far beyond the Agile process, backlog, and sprints. You have to own all elements of product success. Remember that you own product and market strategy, business cases, market needs, effective launches and marketing, and end of life. Having a dual focus isn’t easy, so be clear on how and why you’re deciding to spend your time — whether time should be spent on an Agile task or a more business focused task.

Being a product janitor rather than a product manager

One of the traps that many product managers fall into is that they don’t learn how to say “No.” They end up doing mostly low-level tactical work rather than having a strategic focus in their jobs. Any product being developed will always have an endless number of small tasks and cleanup. If you aren’t careful, you can become a product janitor, cleaning up the mess that others have made.

Delegate and prioritize so you can rise up to be a strategic product leader.