How to Deal With an Unpredictable Product Manager

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We do not get to build many things in our lifetime, so what we do build should be great. I've been fortunate enough to speak with more than a thousand product teams over the last few years at Aha! and I've learned one thing: product managers should be happy. But too often, they are overwhelmed by the job.

So, the reality is that product managers are often overwhelmed and that makes them unpredictable.

This is a guide for engineering and marketing leaders when they are working with an unpredictable product manager. Set aside blame for a moment -- that will not set strategy or build a roadmap. Instead, focus on where your product is headed and what you can do to help get it there.

In 12 months, you should not be selling what you're building today. Your product should be better by then. A product manager must provide this leadership -- or others must step in and help them.

When Product Managers are unpredictable and stretching to keep up, they need their teams' help or everyone risks failure.

Being a product manager in today's agile world is tough. PMs are pulled in every direction, and are encouraged to constantly look down rather than looking up and out. I've learned as the CEO of Aha! and as a former product manager many times over, to watch closely for early predictors of product manager distress.

There are three signs that you might be dealing with an unpredictable product manager:

  • They are easily overwhelmed by incoming requests and unable to keep up.
  • They are ridiculed when they are not an expert in everything.
  • It's difficult for them to see the big picture and manage details at the same time.
It's not easy to think high and low.

As leaders, it's our job to identify these signs early and correct them. To build great software, others must step in and help the PM be great when this happens. There are three techniques that work to prop up an unpredictable product manager and still build great software:

Predict the future

Teams must have a strategic perspective regarding the forces that impact their market. Great products start with a clear strategy that is market driven. You can achieve this by:
  • Understanding the market dynamics
  • Having your own vision
  • Participating in quarterly, forward-looking discussions
Know your customers
Stop talking about personas and get to know the real people using your product. You should always have a go-to group that can give you instant feedback. To gain the most insight from them:
  • Spend 2+ days a month with your customers
  • Make their problems your own challenges
  • Contact them when you need some real-time feedback
Get open
Product managers often need help, which means their peers must be more collaborative and transparent. Here's how you can help PMs be better tomorrow than they are today:
  • Be clear with what you expect from them
  • Bring them behind the marketing and engineering curtains
  • Hold weekly product team meetings
At the end of the day, you're all selling one big idea. So, know your sentence:

"Customers buy our product because ______________________". If a PM can no longer answer this, other leaders must do it for them.

Warning! If you are agile or "agile ambitious," do not just trust it and build to nowhere, just faster. Agile is not the solution to a compromised product manager.

Product management is getting harder and more leaders in the organization need to help answer the "whys" and "what". This means that more folks need to feel a sense of ownership for the strategy and business direction to build great products. They also have to work more collaboratively with product managers who are increasingly unpredictable.

How have you helped an unpredictable product manager?