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Stop chasing a gold standard in Product Management

Whilst doing an interview for a product-centric recruiting firm, I was posed the question:

What is something new which you have learnt this year?

For context, we were discussing the hiring and growth challenges experienced by startups and early-stage companies due to the impact of Covid-19 (is anything NOT about the pandemic nowadays?!).

After pondering for a few minutes, I realised that a lot of my learnings of Product Management ‘best practices’ had been thrown out the window in 2020, in large part due to 3 specific reasons:

1. Uncertainty surrounding the future of the business

2. A sudden drop in active and new customers

3. A sudden drop in traffic and overall interest

As a result of the above, I suddenly had little to no useful data to play with and use in my decision-making process. There were very few goals that felt relevant or worth working towards from a Product Manager’s (PM) perspective. Above all else, there’s nothing more disheartening than pouring your heart and soul into a product, only for it then to be left sitting on a shelf collecting dust as customers flock to more WFH-friendly businesses.

For the first few weeks everything felt, well, a little pointless.

Beyond the scope of my work, my personal life had also been throttled and thrown around like a rag doll, as with anyone else living through the pandemic. This made finding some sort of structure even harder.

After the first month of lockdown, I had largely got my personal life back on track with a series of short, hyper-focused and achievable goals. These revolved around fitness, wellbeing and any other category of lockdown trend you could possibly think of.

I wondered, though, whether or not the same mentality could also be applied to my work.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

Aren’t goals part of the job of a PM, anyway?

You would be correct, to an extent, in thinking this. However, one of the ‘pillars’ of Product Management is that your decisions should be informed, backed by data and mostly unaffected by your personal opinions (beyond a given area of expertise).

However, when experiencing a drop in business, customers and traffic – all the while having customers being pretty disinterested in your product because of the pandemic (think Airbnb) – you are left with somewhat of a barren wasteland.

My trick, it seems in retrospect, was instead to turn this data-barren wasteland into a data-barren playground.

By engaging in a series of small, hyper-focused and achievable experiments using my colleagues, friends and family as my test subjects, I would be able to tackle those ‘blue sky’ projects that I had been putting off for so long. When bamboozled by the day-to-day running of a business and solving the challenges experienced throughout (aka “putting out fires”), little time is left to focus on the fun out-of-this-world projects that got me interested in startups in the first place.

I wrote a piece touching on this shift in mindset during lockdown which you are welcome to read here.

Once I had embraced this new way of product managing, free from the shackles of KPIs, metrics and firefighting, I learnt to begin enjoying the blank canvas laid out before me. Uncertainty had become opportunity.

All of this is to say (if you can’t be bothered to read my verbal diarrhoea) that just because a hotshot PM at Google has written an article on the best way to prioritise tasks and structure sprints, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the right framework for you to follow at all times.

It can often be quite overwhelming to read up on all the things a PM should be doing, rather than showcasing all the things a PM can be doing. In fact, most of the content written around Product Management seems to be catered to PMs working in large companies with vast pools of resources and (often) sluggish speed of delivery.

Each Product Designer, Product Manager and VP of Product will and should have their own way of dealing with the day-to-day challenges of their work. Taking inspiration, influence and advice from others isn’t by any stretch a bad idea – just try and incorporate them into your own style of Product Management suited for your role, your product, your customer and your company.

If you ever find yourself doubting your capabilities as a PM, or get the dreaded Product Management imposter syndrome, then ask yourself this:

Am I feeling like this because I’m comparing myself to others?

If the answer is yes, then you should take a step back from the barrage of Product Management propaganda spewing forth some kind of ideal gold standard in how to do your job.

Take a step back, liberate your mind and embrace the freedom to make your own choices, take your own decisions and craft a style of Product Management which suits you, your product and, ultimately, your customer.

Photo by Jack T on Unsplash

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© Oliver McQuitty 2017 - 2020