7 Lessons from Life as a Product Manager

Six years ago, I found my way into product management out of necessity. I was beginning my career at a healthcare technology startup in what was supposed to be a marketing/communications position. But during my third month on the job, I was thrown on-site at a regional hospital to help facilitate a go-live with our software. As it turns out, job titles don’t always predict the scope of your work in startups.

That day, it became obvious that there was a significant gap between key stakeholders, customers, and our development team. It was impossible to prioritize or build the right thing because we weren’t close enough to the end user. As a result, we ended up working exclusively on client requests–perhaps the least effective way to develop a product. We needed someone to step in, close the gap, and work alongside our small team of five developers. Cue my newfound career path.

As companies learn the importance of evolving into product-driven organizations, there are increasingly greater opportunities for those with a specific skill set — see below — to explore product management. Over the past few years, I’ve put together some of the key lessons I’ve learned from leading product at my own startup, as well as from the innovative, hardworking teams that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of.

1. Develop a multidisciplinary approach

Broad exposure to a range of subjects enables you to leverage the most useful knowledge from each and make better decisions. Specialization gets a lot of attention these days, but it doesn’t fly here. Product requires seeing things from multiple angles and being able to quickly navigate a latticework of mental models. On any given day, you need to be able to evaluate the user experience, assess the feasibility from a development perspective, identify and sort relevant data, communicate key experiment results, and determine how a feature aligns with the overall vision.

Developing a multidisciplinary approach should also help to set you apart, as most who work in technology are focused exclusively on concepts and trends native to the industry. The majority will miss the important lessons and models from other fields of study that can be applied more broadly.

But the ultimate reward is that by positioning yourself at the intersection of multiple disciplines, you develop the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in a way that the vast majority are otherwise incapable of discovering. It’s here where true creativity and the most innovative solutions are found.

2. Establish three skills in the top 25%

The best companies look for diversity on their teams in terms of background and experience, as well as hard and soft skills. This range of skills includes analytics, communication, design, development, research, strategy, synthesis, and user empathy, to name a few. Figure out which you’re good at and commit to developing those skills further.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen to feedback about where to improve. But you distinguish yourself by becoming very good (top 25%) at two or three skills.

Reaching this level demands years of dedication to your craft and the discipline to continue learning. You’ll only be able to sustain this effort if you allocate more energy to the skills that you’re naturally drawn to and enjoy immersing yourself in for indefinite periods of time.

You make yourself rare by combining two or more ‘pretty goods’ until no one else has your mix.
— Scott Adams

3. Manage product, not people

Any job with “manager” in the title carries an immediate connotation that you’re overseeing people. There’s no worse approach to product or faster way to alienate your team. Your sole focus should be on building the best product and user experience. This means collaboration with your team, not management. And if you’ve developed at least a few skills in the top 25%, you should be a true contributor.

Those who resort to managing people often do so because they lack the willingness or ability to contribute to the experience being built. Make yourself an indispensable part of the process.

4. Help your team answer their own questions

You can’t possibly have the answer to every question, nor should you pretend to. The most intelligent, respected leaders are always aware of the limitations in their knowledge. But you can help your team clearly articulate questions and begin to uncover answers through conversation.

If you’re able to help others think more rationally and find their own answers just by talking it through, you’re naturally going to get more buy-in than you would by telling someone what to do. It’s human instinct to feel more invested in answers and solutions you’ve helped come up with.

When everyone on your team is engaged, contributing, and learning from one another, the quality of work improves significantly. This skill demands exceptional listening and learning how to ask better questions. If you do it right, you will be able to promote transparency, self-awareness, and better orchestrate the perpetual moving pieces.

5. Consider second and third-order consequences

First-order consequences are those that are immediately evident and often end up in contradiction to long-term gains. Failing to think beyond first-order effects often results in poor decision making. For example, most of us might not enjoy the rain. But we wouldn’t wish away rainy days because the subsequent-order consequences–drought, wildfires, famine–are in direct opposition to our best interests.

While product is slightly lower stakes than climate, tunnel vision is a common struggle when building out a feature that’s intended to drive a key metric. You might be focused on retention, but how is that affecting the bigger picture? What if you’re compromising the experience for customers who are your strongest advocates? What if the strategy contradicts the identity you’re working to create?

It’s important to move fast, but it’s also important to navigate between these different levels so you have fewer headaches down the line. You’re not always going to have a definitive answer, but this thought exercise should help you consider the future implications of your decisions.

6. Value feedback over intuition

This is one of the biggest struggles I see from entrepreneurs across the board. Everyone wants to pour money into their project because they’re convinced it’s a million-dollar idea. But very few have the humility to prototype a product, put it out there, and seek honest feedback. And unless your risk tolerance borders on insanity, this is the cheapest, most effective way to assess the viability and potential market for your idea.

As a product manager, the story remains the same. You want to figure out the fastest, cheapest way to test your concept. This often requires hacking something together, getting it in the hands of your users, and actually listening to what they have to say. Great product managers find creative ways to gather customer feedback at the earliest stage possible.

Human beings are complex and fickle, so it’s impossible to predict how they’ll react to a brand-new solution. When our new ideas fail, it’s usually because we were overconfident about how well customers would understand and how much they would care.
— Jake Knapp + John Zeratsky

The momentary discomfort that comes from seeking brutally honest feedback is far less of a risk than taking off in a blind sprint based on intuition. You want to limit the potential downside and wasted effort whenever possible. The earlier you’re able to correct potential flaws in your product or assumptions, the greater your likelihood of success.

7. Be open with your failures

Most people never venture past the surface level of the “fail fast” mentality. We acknowledge that failure comes with the territory when working on disruptive ideas, but we forget to consider the underlying importance of this sentiment.

The goal should never be to force an idea to work, no matter the cost. It should be to assess if there’s a “there” there, as quickly as possible. There’s a fine line between sharing an overall vision and becoming emotionally entrenched in the success of a specific feature. The latter blinds you from objectively assessing outcomes and often leads to bad practices, i.e. “massaging” the data.

As a product manager, your job is to take chances and determine which opportunities show promise. When one of those efforts doesn’t result in the next big thing, there are still positive takeaways. You definitively know that it’s better to allocate energy elsewhere, which is valuable knowledge that will help shape your company’s direction. With the right approach, failure is a sign that you’re committed to pushing the realm of current possibilities–a necessity if you want to evolve your product and position yourself for long-term success.