Halloween Spooktacular: The Dark Side of Product Management

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Bain Public blog.

We’ve all been there. Your very first break into product management. In the startup world, a lot of people become product managers by default rather than design. People think that product managers operate this very critical, high-leverage function that, when executed correctly, greatly facilitates the leap past prototypes into a steady return of profits. But when things go wrong, there’s nothing worse for a product manager than losing credibility with their team, executives, and customers. Sometimes there’s no going back.

When product management is done poorly, it can create scary and often frightening moments. Get ready because the following article is our 1st Annual Halloween Product Management Spooktacular (sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss any).

The four horrors of product management

As a product manager, you’re familiar with the many hardships, from dealing with lots of responsibility but no authority to making difficult trade-offs and working in a thankless environment. But what happens when a product manager suppresses productivity, stifles creativity, and fails to focus on the overall business impact? These are just some of the many horrors that arise when product management really takes a bad turn. Want to find out more about these ghoulish nightmares? Grab your popcorn and get comfortable because we’re here to uncover the dark side of product management.

1. Products that fail to meet business objectives

There are a number of reasons why products fail to meet business objectives. Among them includes the use of disparate or disconnected tools as well as failing to use a consistent methodology that prioritizes market input.

The reality is that products fail when they aren’t solving a market problem. When stakeholders cloud the business focus or vision with too many high-level ideas not backed by evidence or market research for validation, it can really lead you down the wrong path.

In fact, according to CB Insights, the number one cause of startup failure is no market need. Combine that with a lack of systemic communications between teams and you’re in real trouble, as this can result in the delivery of products that miss the mark.

2. Over-promising and time-based commitments

When it comes to roadmap planning and presenting, it is strategically advantageous to manage expectations, avoid over-promising features and keep those time-based details out of the conversation as these are commitments you might not even be able to meet.

As the strategic, high-level focus of the roadmap increases, your emphasis on deadlines and timeframes should decrease. The more you want to manage expectations (e.g. with your sales team or your customer base), the less of an emphasis you’ll place on timeframes and dates.

It is important to note that you’ll still want to develop that roadmap in the context of a well-thought-out timeframe in which you expect the work to be completed. However, caution against using dates that are too specific. If you don’t track a project, you can’t manage it. This is why we recommend leaving the scheduling, planning, and tracking to the project manager while keeping your roadmap timeframes at a higher level, perhaps estimating a feature to be released in a given quarter, rather than by a specific date.

3. The bloodcurdling product manager

The bloodcurdling product manager is often someone who doesn’t have a strong understanding of their role. They’re too focused on doing but not doing better or adding value. They tend to take direction from the wrong place, such as looking at the executive’s vision without challenging it.

This type of product manager focuses too much on high value and low efforts rather than the product mission, strategies, and tactics themselves. They’re much too concerned with what they need to build next instead of identifying the problems to be solved or analyzing market trends. While their “roll up your sleeves” attitude helps, it comes at the expense of being strategic. They are ultimately unable to tie their work with top executive strategies, move key metrics, and they show the inability to contribute to the company growth.

Do you want to hear something extra spooky? Eventually, with this type of product manager on board, it leads to a decline in product momentum and loss in revenue.

4. No focus on business impact

Too often, you see market research, data, or customer validation used as window dressing to shore up an idea decided in advance, instead of being used as a means to make the decision. The difference between a product business that thrives and focuses on business impact and the one that crumbles is discovery, validation, and decision making. This is the foundation upon which you build your ideas. But when a product manager doesn’t know how to say no and fails to track and document metrics, teams can easily fall out of sync, and issues with communication and transparency can arise.

Unfortunately, some product managers will only focus on shiny new objects rather than powerful tools and resources that can positively impact the business. In fact, 65% of product managers acknowledge that they don’t spend enough time keeping up with best practices or techniques.

When product management is done right

The single biggest thing an organization can do to dramatically increase the skill sets of its product management teams is to establish and follow a consistent and formal product management process based on best practices – focusing on adopting a structured method in prioritizing.

When done right, a product manager knows that it’s not about doing what you’re told, capturing requirements, and getting everything right. It’s about guiding your team to understand the obstacles blocking the vision and solving them one small step at a time together.

As a product manager, you need to not only be user-centric but also market savvy and industry-centric as well. You know that your most valuable asset is time and focus, channeling your energy into the right features. When you know what to do, but don’t understand the thinking behind the doing, you’re going to be lost and ineffective when it matters.

As we say here at Bain Public: Work should be organized, things should be managed, but people can only be encouraged, inspired, and led. Good leadership will focus on features that map and complement the mission.