The Day I Became an Average Product Manager
August 13, 2015

The Day I Became an Average Product Manager

by Ron Yang

A Sales VP approached me about a new potential deal with our first national customer. If we could deliver one new feature by the end of the week, he was “90% confident” that he could make the deal happen.

You have heard this one before, right?

Our team already had a ton on our plate, but I wanted to appease the VP and quickly put together some rough requirements. We then started scrambling to get it done.

We delayed our scheduled launch in place of the new items, and by the end of the week, we had a feature that “mostly” worked. I ran back to the VP to let him know, only to learn that the deal had not gone through. In fact, hours after the VP asked me about the feature, he learned that this customer had gone with a competitor.

He did not want to tell me. He was embarrassed. And I was mad. Very mad.

My team was angry as well — and they had every right to be. I had compromised our roadmap, released a half-baked feature, and wasted the entire team’s work for something that no longer mattered. I became an average product manager (at best) — a mistake that I vowed to never repeat. I also realized that I needed a better strategy and approach to how I led product.

Product management is not an easy job. Everyone is constantly vying for your attention. Your CEO is telling you about their next big idea. Sales teams are requesting features to help them win the next big client. Oh, and engineering still needs your insight on that upcoming feature.

You are getting pulled in too many directions — and you end up doing a mediocre job on all fronts. This is why it is easy to be an average product manager.

But here is the good news — you do not have to settle for average. You can be a top product manager who leads your team to build lovable products. Better yet, this does not have to be painful.

Here are three things that all product managers should do to be great. These actions are how the best product managers drive results that set themselves and their teams apart. They know that when their teams shine, they have succeeded.

Top product managers:

Plan Great product managers have a goal-first approach to managing product. The main reason why I became an average PM was that I did not really have a plan. When the VP came to me with that new feature request, I justified the chaos of a last minute launch by referencing a loose set of initiatives that did not roll up to a specific goal.

Mediocre product managers get lost in the shuffle because they lack true vision. They do not see the value of strategy. As a result, they do not set goals for their teams to achieve. To be a top product manager, focus your team’s attention on what truly matters — the ideas that will drive the most impact for your customers and business.

A crucial first step is to develop your short term and long term goals. If you get requests that do not enhance your goals, then your roadmap will show clear reasons why you should not spend immediate time on them. Instead, put these ideas in your product backlog. You will know where to find them if (or when) the time comes for these ideas to be shipped as features in future releases.

Communicate The best product managers never stop communicating with their teams. Specifically, they share the “why” behind their product vision. This strategic thinking drives all of their decisions about what to work on. Rather than instantly agreeing to the new feature, I should have communicated that the new feature would not be ready for the release and did not line up with our goal for that release.

Do not just say, “No” when someone suggests an idea — be transparent instead. Explain the reason why your team will not pursue their idea at that point in time. This helps your colleagues understand your thought process. It also helps to reinforce the high level goals of your product and company.

The best product managers never stop communicating. They are so assured of their product’s vision that there is no confusion about what that vision is. Product teams and customers alike know what your product does, why it adds value to the business, and what makes customers love it. This communication ensures that everyone moves together in one smooth action.

Ship If your team is not shipping tons of new features on a regular basis, then you are not doing your job….right?

I used to think that was what defined great product managers. This is probably why I felt pressured to add the VP’s feature in the release, even though we had no time to adequately test it.

Shipping new features is the tactical side of product management where your strategic decisions turn to action. This core aspect of product management is central to your role. It is the question that everyone in your company asks: “What are you working on?”

To get products and features built, you must make sure that requirements are clear. You never want to leave any doubts about what engineering should build. Engineers are happy to build what you ask for — but they rely on your management to execute their work. The more clear your requirements are, the more closely your final product roadmap will align with its strategy.

Every day is different for a product manager. You wear multiple hats and put on a new one each day.

The one hat that I will never wear again is that of an average product manager. I know it is easy to get distracted by the daily grind — especially when there is so much on your plate and you have endless people to please.

That is why having the right high level goals — to plan, communicate, and ship — are so essential if you want to be amazing. Use these guidelines as your true north. They will lead you, your team, and your product to greatness.

What do you think are other characteristics of top product managers?

Ron Yang

Ron Yang

Ron builds lovable products. He was the vice president of product management and UX at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Ron has more than 15 years of experience in entrepreneurship and leading product teams. Previously, Ron founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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