The glamour of product management is alluring to subject matter experts & fresh graduates alike. Makes them think that they can control. The thinking is: if I can be the person assigning me the work, figuring out what should be done next, I can probably do a better job, as I have more context on the domain.
Unfortunately, those transitions are seldom easy to make. Good product management requires juggling multiple problems and solving them. It requires hard decisions to be made in the face of uncertainty, sometimes with barely enough information. In some ways, good product management can be done only through hard work; putting your nose to the grind every day, building your empirical knowledge about inter-dependencies and consequences. There are a few naturally great PMs. Most of us show up to work everyday.
My journey has been filled with trials & tribulations — from not knowing what Product Management is, in the early 2010s, to establishing a Product teams in the late 2010s, in environments where the function is confused with Project management.
In this article, we’ll cover what makes Product Management hard and how you can make it easy for you.
There is a tl;dr at the bottom.
Why is Product Management hard?
🚒 Ground-level PM work is 90% fire-fighting, 10% strategy
Most of us have started on the ground, where we’re deep in the trenches with the development team. This is where “getting shit done” is the primary goal. You’ll have a few escapes to think strategy, but it’ll be quickly eclipsed by the execution burden.
And by no means is ground-level execution easy. Even today, when I work on specific products directly, there are inter-team challenges that have to be solved.
Unlike other functions, where there are facts you can rely on — you can code a sorting algorithm only one way with a given efficiency — product function is dependent on the people & organizational mix. In the absence of key functions, a PM role exponentially increases.
Consider this — a team that doesn’t have an analyst on board will demand that the PM works on the metrics and extraction. A team that doesn’t have a dedicated UX person will require PMs to weigh different experience options. A team without a Data scientist will need the PM to play the role of figuring out the best A/B strategies.
And more often than not, the PM is not skilled in these things. They have to learn on the job. All the while keeping ensuring key PM functions are not sacrificed. The backlog has to be ready, the stories defined and acceptance criteria vetted.
Many young PMs feel drained out because of this. Their day will be spent in fire-fighting, while evenings will be spent in planning. Our function, in the early years, is to be an ‘unblocker’ — ensuring teams are not waiting on the PM for direction or work.
📈 Decision making is hard
Another allure of Product management that captures the imagination is that we make decisions. And sure, at a very high level, it seems like something you’ll love to do/is easy to do — given all possible facts on your current product usage, and the market conditions, it is easy to set out a high-level roadmap of where you want to drive your product in the next 6 months.
But, ground-level product management is decision-making in the face of uncertainty. It is deciding on things that are so precise that the scale of impact will make your head spin.
Let me explain: Consider two situations. One, where you’ve to decide on a redesign of your application, to be rolled out over the next 6 months. You have the data that there is a serious technology & UX issue. You have customer feedback. So, that decision isn’t hard.
On the flip side, in the second scenario, you’ve to decide if the data model for customer data should be changed. It’ll take a sprint’s worth of effort. However, doing so pushes other features. Other planned features need to be redesigned. External services need refactoring. Your area of impact, though small, has myriad what-ifs scenarios that you’ve to juggle. Oh, and btw, the team is not sure that changing the customer data model will bring in the performance & experience gains. POC will take time and again, come at a cost.
Difficult to decide, isn’t it? What would you do in this scenario? Add time pressure to the mix, as you only have a sprint to decide the next step. Gathering facts is not an option — getting a team buy-in is difficult.
The glamour of decision-making is quite draining, for all the importance it imparts to you.
⏰ Product Management = Discipline
I like to refer to ground-level product management as simultaneously managing chaos & uncertainty. And the only way to manage that is through discipline. I’ll talk about how you can do this in the subsequent sections, but remember that being disciplined when you’re being pulled in all possible directions is hard.
A typical PM day can be full of chaos, forcing us to start our day before the rest of the team and end it after most. If you don’t have the right tools to manage that chaos or even the right frameworks you can get carried away and float around pointlessly in the tide.
When I started in Product management, without any PM functions above me to guide, I felt that I was at the mercy of my stakeholders and the dev team. If either of them did not pull me into meetings or throw a requirement, I could focus on my work. My workdays used to start at 6 am and end at 8 pm. The chaos was unpredictable and the challenges were immense.
The biggest mistake I did was to let others control my time. And that can happen when you don’t value your time. Learning to say No was the hardest part. You see, it’s not the meetings or discussions that kill you, it’s the context switch. Constantly switching contexts drains you more than the content of the meetings/discussions themselves.
And this is what most PMs miss out on — take control of your time. Plan out your day before others do. Learn to say no (more on this later).
🧗♀️ Competition at the ground level is tough
In most organizations that you’ll join as a new PM, you’ll be one of 4–5 PMs. And each of you will have to prove that you’re adding value.
This pairs beautifully with imposter syndrome. We’re destined to compare ourselves with our peers. And if you’re unlucky, your peers are SMEs who’ve joined the PM function. This means they’re better than you at tech/UX/data/whatever.
And you’re mindlessly spending time to be as good as them at it.
Or worse, you’re responsible for a non-glamorous part of the product. One where massive gains are already achieved and you can only hope to eke out marginal gains. In your show and tells, you see others with double-digit growths, while you’re only demonstrating growth in bps.
And that hits you. Makes you wonder — are you adding any value? You’re nervous about your year-end review.
If this feels familiar, you’re not alone. PMs in higher levels feel that too.
📖 The false need to know everything
Early stage PMs think that they need to know everything about an SME function — just to make sure they make the right decision.
If you’re a PM with a design background, it can be extremely daunting to understand technical architectural concepts. You might think that you need to know how the microservices architecture plays into the success of your product, just to make sure you’re making the right decisions.
Or if you’re a PM with a strategy/business background, you think that it’s important for you to know how events are fired from the application and stored in your analytics tool.
This stems from uninformed forced decisions we’ve to make every day. And I’m here to tell you — you don’t need to know. SMEs are there to guide you. Ideally, you’ll have more than 1 SME in your team — let them weigh the pros & cons and tell you what they think is the best.
Our need to be right all the time gets in our way of being correct. Being correct does not mean we’re right. Being correct means that with all the available information at that time, you’ve taken the correct decision. Being right happens only in hindsight.
❌ Building an understanding from social media
You’ve probably read nuggets of wisdom from PMs on Twitter. These well-crafted nuggets of information, while useful, tend to paint an incorrect picture about product management (in no way am I saying that they’re wrong). They are designed to be concise and pertinent to the subject at hand.
Don’t expect to make those beautifully crafted 2 line wisdom-imparting sentences in the first few years of product management. If you see someone doing so, there are high chances that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
Building an understanding of the function from these alone is detrimental.
So, how can you get better at product management?
How can product management be easier?
Recognize what you’re getting into. Speak to other PMs. Understand what their day looks like. Ask yourself if this is something you want to do. Contextualize information from social media and blog posts such as this. There is an inherent expectation that the reader has some experience in Product management (this one doesn’t). I have a simple rule — “Lesser the words, larger the interpretation scope”.
Understand what you’re getting into… know that the glamour of leading teams and affecting change doesn’t happen from day 1. It’s an uphill battle filled with trials.
If you’re a year or two into the product function, learn to take control of the following:
There is no bigger currency than the time that you can afford for yourself. As a PM, your time is vital. Spend it wisely. The only way you can get control of your time is through discipline. Effectively managing chaos in your day can be done by setting non-negotiable time-outs for you to regroup within and plan things out.
Do not be afraid of uncertainty. If a spanner is thrown in your cog-wheels, prioritize the removal of the spanner, before diving into the chaos that follows.
How can you take control of your time?
Simple — plan your day. Arrive an hour early and plan for what key actions/tasks you want to compete in. Set meetings with yourself.
Learn to prioritize on the fly. Distinguish between urgent & important. A stitch in time saves nine.
Be agile about time management. It’s ok if your planing fails. Not everything that you plan works out, but constantly planning will eventually get you there. Know when to relinquish your control on time and when to hold.
This follows closely after time management. Take control of your actions. Do not let anyone force your hand on making a decision. Balance between urgency and importance. Remember the actions that you’ve taken and, remember to reflect on them.
Constantly ask yourself — did I learn anything new today? If not, go learn something new. Usually, in a fast-paced product, you’re learning something or the other… however, there might be instances where you have no learning. There is such a thing as excessive or pointless learning. As a PM you do not need to know how microservices are built and architected. Or how data is being stored in the database. You do however need to know what that data reveals. Take control of your learning.
And ya, Always Be Learning.
This is something that young PMs miss out on — taking control of your growth. We get complacent in our day-to-day that we forget that we’re here to grow — both the organization and ourselves. If there is one without the other, you’re in the wrong place.
Your growth is paramount here — the organizations’ growth follows your growth. Ask yourself:
Are you saturated in your current role?
Is that why you think product management is hard?
Talk to your line manager and get a different product/feature to work on. Communicate your frustrations properly.
You are your own Product Owner. You have to fight for your user (you). Ask and mostly, you’ll be given. If not, leave.
You can grow by following the steps in the “Seek Guidance/Help” section.
Why is decision-making hard? Simple — uncertainty and the pressure of time. How can you make it easier? Make a decision. You don’t have to be right all the time, you have to be right most of the time.
Understand the difference between making a decision on the topic at hand and making a decision about the decision. You can read more about decision-making here:
3. Seek guidance/help
Look, we’ve all been there. You’re frustrated or tired. Helpless even. There is a good chance that another PM has felt the same. As a community, PMs are more than happy to lend a hand.
Seek out PMs that you think have had a similar experience. You can look horizontally at your fellow PMs. Ask for help. Or you can reach out to a senior PM and seek guidance (if you don’t find anyone in your immediate circle, reach out to me — I’m more than happy to help you! ). It’s important to have mentors in the early stage of your career. I had quite a few when I started, always more than one.
A few tips on this:
- Don’t ask stupid questions. Ask yourself, would this be something that the person has a context on?
- Introduce yourself and make your ask clear. If you’re seeking mentorship, say why and what areas you need mentoring in… a blanket statement like “I want you to mentor me in product management” means you’ve not thought enough about your weaknesses nor have you researched about the person you’re reaching out to…
- Self-promotion is good, only after you’ve established rapport.
Participate in PM meetups. Organize them, if there aren’t any, in your area. The knowledge-share and communal bitching actually help you get a fresh perspective and unload, respectively.
Give yourself time
Nothing is easy. Nothing good happens overnight. It takes time. Give yourself time. It’s ok to make mistakes and learn. Don’t get caught up in the day-to-day. Think long-term. Have a plan.
PM as a function is an experience-driven function — the longer you do it, the better you get.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t see it yet, but it’s there. Make progress towards seeing it and then, reaching it.
You’re doing good wherever you are…
Soon, you too will be sharing nuggets of wisdom on social media! 😂
Why is PMing hard?
- Ground-level PM work is 90% fire-fighting
Folks enter hoping it’s more like 20% fire-fighting. Expectations & reality do not match.
- Decision making is hard
Faced with uncertainty and chaos, you’re unable to make decisions, quickly. Drains you out.
- Product management = Discipline
Most PMs are not disciplined. They let others take control of their time & work. Inevitably leads to frustration.
- Competition on the ground-level
Becomes really hard to distinguish yourself. Can force you to focus on irrelevant things like SME functions.
- False need to know everything
Incorrect understanding that you need to know details about things before deciding on it. Stems from competition and lack of role awareness and, amateur team.
- False expectations built from social media
Reading tweets & posts which glamorise the ability to deliver wisdom-packed content in 140 chars creates an expectation that it is what you’ll be able to do. Misunderstanding that most of those come from experience.
How can you git gud?
- Recognize the roles impact and function. Validate if that works for you.
- Take control of your time, actions, learning and growth
- Make decisions. Learn from them. Adapt an agile mindset.
- Seek guidance from fellow PMs/Senior PMs.
- Give yourself time to grow
Thank you for reading!