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Overcoming Product Managers’ Biggest Challenges

August 5, 2014

5 minute read

Although no job is free from obstacles, a day in the life of a product manager can often feel like a battle against them at every corner. You work with everyone, you’re involved in everything, and you’re sought out everywhere. Here’s some advice on how to tackle some of the biggest of those challenges, for more productive (and serene) product management.

You’re struggling to manage expectations with your roadmap

Perhaps our number one challenge (at least according to this survey way back in 2009) is roadmapping. In my chats with product managers, what is specifically challenging about a roadmap is not simply deciding what to build when, but how to communicate this out to your team and customers. If you often find yourself backtracking when artificial deadlines come around, you likely need to reconsider many preconceived ideas about roadmaps to better manage expectations.

What can you do?

  • Banish dates from your roadmap, and instead be firm on your commitment to current, near-term or long-term developments.
  • If you can find a proxy that everyone is comfortable with, you can set vague time brackets for these allocations to help with communications.
  • Make your roadmaps as open and visible as possible so that your colleagues and customers feel that they are integrated in the product loop
  • Treat your roadmap as a fluid, changeable document. Use a format that is appropriate for demonstrating changes and making updates in light of new decisions. Share these processes visually with your team.

It’s hard to focus on your strategic product direction amidst day-to-day demands

Many product managers see their most important objectives slipping further and further away as the day is taken over by urgent, but less important tasks. Perhaps roadmap features are getting pushed back in favour of quick fixes, or the distraction of endless emails and meetings means you can’t find the time to concentrate on strategy.

What can you do?

  • Break down big strategic goals into manageable tasks – whether this be to interview a customer or source intelligence from a colleague – and integrate these into your daily routine.
  • Keep your product vision at the fore of your mind by making it physically visible. Print it out and stick it around the office.
  • Consider the business case for every decision, no matter how small. Develop a system whereby if you commit resources to a product change, you’ve measured whether the impact will outweigh the effort.

Aligning your company on product direction is threatened by different teams’ biases

A product manager should be 100% focused on the needs of their target customer. But there are many different people in your organisation who are key in how to get there. Sales, Marketing, Customer Support and every other customer-facing role has invaluable insight into what customers want and what is key to success in gaining new ones. Trouble is, every team is biased towards their own objectives and world-view, making it difficult to align each one on product direction.

What can you do?

  • Be the link that brings different teams together to collaborate on product discussions. When everyone is able to see the big picture – and the different viewpoints that come with it – part of your mediation work is done for you.
  • Make sure that all employee input is securely captured and traced. This way if a particular departmental concern can’t be satisfied by one project or development, you can point to how it is being actioned elsewhere.

Your executive level doesn’t always agree with your product decisions

The role of your executive team in the minutiae of product decisions depends heavily on your business, its size, and the individuals involved. But regardless of how interested your executives are in day-to-day product management, these are the people you ultimately have to convince of your vision and decisions to get there. So when they aren’t behind you, this is a product manager’s most crippling challenge.

What can you do?

  • Follow a rigorous and repeatable process to qualify new ideas, whether they come from a customer support rep or the CEO. You must be equipped with reasoned arguments for or against any product decision, and train your executive team to expect the same for their brainwaves too.
  • Make sure your product decisions are grounded in business value. If you’re finding yourself battling your senior team to push back on or push through a suggestion, are you sure you’re taking the right approach? Every product change should reflect a real value to the business – be it customer retention or competitive survival – and you should be collecting the evidence to prove it.
  • Again, be open and transparent on roadmapping. Once aligned with your executive team at the highest level of product strategy, the smaller decisions should be easier to support against this framework.

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If you’d like more best practice, read our 7 pillars of good product management

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2 thoughts on "Overcoming Product Managers’ Biggest Challenges"

  1. Hi Janna, an excellent post. I can relate to these issues at so many levels. All of these issues (and many more) can be effectively addressed using a purpose-built Product Management tool that facilitates product strategy & vision, visual roadmapping, features & requirements, product release & portfolio management, ideation & innovation, and seamless collaboration & integration.

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