The emotional side of PM
A recent discussion with an amazing Investment Manager about the challenges faced by PM’s prompted me to write this post. I love being a P.M. and too often, I tend to marginalize some of the negative aspects of the profession. It’s a complicated job and not for the faint of heart but the rewards are phenomenal if you understand what to expect.
Contrary to what folks might think, many of the problems we encounter are not related to hard skills such as engineering or statistics. They are emotional hurdles and spring from a
general lack of awareness of what exactly Product Managers do or what Product Managment is.
The story of the blind men and the elephant springs to mind. Although each man correctly identified their specific part of the animal, they could not agree on the elephant as a whole. Case in point:
Designers claim that PM’s work for the business side of the house
The business side claims it’s an engineering role
Engineers consider it a non-technical role
Like the blind men in the elephant parable, these specialists work within silos of information and perspective. None of them can perceive the totality of a PM’s role ( or an elephant). So, instead, they describe the PM in empheral terms:
You’re the CEO of the Product
You decide how the product looks and feels
You lead others
You are the industry expert
While all of these previous statements are true, they provide scant information about the true nature of a PM’s role. In an attempt to categorize, they over generalize – assigning PM’s to some no-man’s land where only other other PM’s reside.
In their defense, our role is difficult to compartmentalize and the diversity of our products and projects often muddy the waters. In practice, a PM must be a Renaissance Man, someone who understands the discipline and language of engineering, business, and other collaborators in product development. His depth of knowledge in each of these specialties must allow him to assess and manage their individual contributions. His breadth of knowledge must allow him a bird’s eye perspective of all the activities involved in the creative process.
Planning, managing and scheduling all these moving parts and their owners can be a Hurculean task. It is up to the PM to translate business requirements into a language that engineers can grasp and appreciate. When engineers run into problems, it’s the PM’s responsibility to communicate the implications to business. In other words, the PM is always the go-to guy – often amid the hue and cries of a modern day Tower of Babel.
It often requires the limitless patience of a diplomat and the communication skills of a therapist but it‘s worth it. The pride of delivering a product that meets and exceeds everyone’s expectations is one of the most exciting and professionally satisfying feelings imaginable. It’s also my definition of leadership.
Contrary to popular belief, product management it is not a bloodless, unimaginative process. In fact, it is more art than science – requiring frequent out-of-the-box thinking. Synthesizing the demands of so many stakeholders while keeping an eye on your vision of the final product involves some serious mental gymnastics. It can be a lonely perch but if you enjoy deep creative thinking, it’s the most exciting (and stressful) part of the job. A PM’s version of Uncle Remus‘ “Briar Patch“.
There are those who believe that a PM is simply an extra layer of bureaucracy and burdensome overhead. To them, I would like to say: “ Of course you can build a skyscraper without an architect – but why would you want to?“ I find it insulting but know that it usually comes from someone who simply doesn’t understand the role we actually play. Still stings, however.
I mentioned the exhiliration of leadership. The flip side of that coin is an onerous responsibility. Since you get to call the shots, you’re the first (and sometimes the only) person held accountably if things go all pear shaped. If a user doesn’t understand your product, that’s on you, not Marketing. If your product comes at the wrong time, that’s on you, not Strategy. If a user can’t find the button, that’s on you, not Design. And if a target user has no use for your product, that’s on you, not him.
On the other hand, if your product is a smashing success, good leadership also dictates that you modestly deflect any credit to your team. Celebrity is not one of the perks of PM’s. To quote Todd Jackson, former PM at Google and Facebook:
“Have moxie but don’t self-promote: Compliments should always go to the team. Credit should be handed out freely and generously. Success belongs to the team but failures belong to you.”
You might wonder at this point if I’m not just a glutton for punishment. But if you are working in a company where life is breathed into a product, you’ll understand why I think being a PM is just fun as hell. To witness how all the moving parts come together into one final, shiny, cohesive idea is nothing short of amazing.
So, I will continue to solicit feedback from everyone around me to better understand and communicate with them while engaging in activities that help raise their awareness and recognition of what I do That’s how I deal with it – but it’s up to you to come up with your own ways to manage the emotional aspects of being a P.M..