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The Five Mistakes All Product Managers Will Make

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A little league baseball player swings and misses

There are currently 323 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Of those, 257 were players who qualify as batters (excluding pitchers, managers, executives, and contributors). They all failed about 70% of the time.

The average Hall of Fame inductee had a .302 lifetime batting average. They failed more often than not during their hall-of-fame-worthy careers.

Like Babe Ruth and his Hall of Fame colleagues, product leaders who embrace a growth mindset turn failure into opportunities. These opportunities lead to new knowledge, personal and professional growth, and they create momentum because capitalizing on these setbacks moves them forwards, while others see failure as a terminal obstacle.

Any failure is a portal to new knowledge.

We’ve interviewed hundreds of product leaders for the book Product Leadership, as part of our Product Hero series, and as guests of our podcast, and five common threads have consistently risen to the top when the topic of failure come up.

#1 Focusing On The Solution Before The Problem

It’s been said many times over, but customers don’t want to buy your product. To put it more bluntly, people don’t give a sh*t about your product. Really, they don’t. So go ahead, shove all the features and functionality you want into your product. People won’t care, and they won’t become your customers much less users.

People want to solve their problems. In fact they are much better at describing their problem(s) than they are at envisioning the best solution(s) for their problems. That’s where you come in. The best product strategy focuses on the problem, not the solution.

But it doesn’t just end there. It needs to be a worthwhile problem — preferably their most painful problem. In some cases, attempting to solve for their #2+ problem can actually exacerbate their #1 problem!

  • Listen to your users to understand the problem that’s worth solving
  • Focus on your target market’s pain — the bigger and higher priority the pain the better.
  • Solve that problem better than the current option (or your competitors).
  • Talk about fixing their problem, not about the features and functionality that solves that problem.

#2 Making Assumptions

We all make assumptions when we have limited information. In a more formal setting, these assumptions become actual hypotheses. But a hypothesis is merely “a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences.”

Decisions made on the basis of an assumption without proper discovery and validation will not likely point your product team in the right direction. Even if you are in your market/space (e.g., you are product manager building a solution for product managers), don’t assume it will meet your target users’ needs. The closer you are to your product, the more you should seek external validation from your users.

Be focused on explicitly acknowledging key assumptions that drive product decisions. You must be cognizant of where your own opinion is informing something, versus truly listening to the feedback that you’re getting.

#3 Under Communicating the Roadmap

Communicate early and often with as many (internal and external) people as possible. Communicate product and team interdependencies. Communicate your product vision (see below). Communicate your product roadmap — even though you know it will change. And that’s ok, because a roadmap is not a release plan.

If you have specific dates and timelines in your roadmap, take them out! Your roadmap should be organized around broad themes rather than features and dates. On jobs to be done, customer needs and problems. A roadmap is not a commitment. It is a guide that reacts to new information.

The best roadmap is a strategic communication artifact that is focused on the big picture and conveys the path you’ll take to fulfill your product vision. So a roadmap without communication is not a roadmap.

#4 Not Communicating Your Product Vision & Strategy

Being able to articulate a product strategy and vision is critical, but you must also have a strategy and vision to communicate in the first place — one that is focused on the problem rather than the solution and uses customer insights for validation and clarity. Without a deep understanding of the problem, you get what we discussed above — a solution in search of a problem.

But creating a brilliant vision and strategy will be pointless if it can’t be reliably shared with the people that matter.

#5 Not Giving Design Its Due

This is an all-too-common occurrence in product organizations — a lack of understanding about the central and practical role of design in product creation. Design and design thinking is less about “making things look better” and more about:

  • Utilizing creative thinking strategies to solve problems
  • Making observations, creating hypotheses and then testing their validity.
  • Creating visual systems that establish hierarchy and order
  • Finding the right balance between consistency and delight
  • Making complex problems simple by properly defining and then solving them

Of course esthetics do have a function. People associate visual attractiveness with usability. But design and design thinking are practical approaches to achieving real product outcomes.

It’s a central component of getting from unproven concept to the user arriving at their “ah-ha moment” when they discover the value of your product/solution to their work/life and why they can’t live without it. Design isn’t just making products pretty.

What failures have you experienced or witnessed as a product leader, and what did you learn from it?

If you want to read more on leadership, you can download a free chapter of the best selling book Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams.

Product Leadership book

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

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