Product Management

The Unspoken Challenges of Being a Product Manager

Nathan Allsopp
March 16, 2018

Being a Product Manager can be an extremely fulfilling and enjoyable role.

Their efforts have a direct impact on a company’s product, customers, processes - and ultimately, its success.

However, it isn’t always the easiest job. Product Management comes with a range of challenges, just like many other roles do.

Playing such a key role in formulating the company’s offerings means you end up being pulled in many different directions at the same time. You have to juggle a lot of competing agendas.

Many articles glorify the role of Product Management, but often don’t mention the unspoken challenges they face. I’ve heard a lot of common stories from other PMs and found some key challenges faced by many.

1 - Wielding little to no direct/actual power

In many businesses, the Product Management function is independent of key areas such as Engineering or Design. This results in Product Managers having no direct reports or line of authority into functions that have a heavy impact on the creation of a product.

Issues arise when they have to peddle unpopular changes. Trying to implement new systems, processes or change in general that people don’t like is made slightly harder when you don’t have direct authority over.

Have you met the new PM, Janice? She’s making some “scrum” mandatory every morning during our coffee time. That sounds like a joke!

You can tell the difference between a PM and a great PM by how they handle this challenge. The great ones are able to overcome this by effectively communicating the benefits to not only the business, but also the people involved - how it makes their work more effective.

2 - Shielding developers and designers from random crap

I’m sure many Product Managers reading this have seen this occur first-hand. Some executive or staff member completely ignoring processes, going straight to a developer and requesting incredibly weird or wonderful tasks.

Perhaps it’s urgent for some reason, perhaps it isn’t. The problem here is the process is disrupted.

When a sprint is running, everyone is focused on a common goal - interrupting that flow and distracting people from the task at hand means interrupting progress.

A friend’s company is using React, and it sounds really cool. Can we swap everything over to React? Shouldn’t be too major. Don’t tell Janice.

A tough challenge for a Product Manager is being a task monitor. They need to be able to look at tasks, decipher their importance in line with the current context and tasks at hand, and make a call.

That might mean engaging an engineer to help out, but that might also mean taking the task and doing it themselves. If you’ve got engineers being interrupted for everyone’s general IT support, new equipment setup and so forth, consider whether you can handle these things instead.

It might not be the most glorious of work, but it keeps those building the product focused on the task at hand.

3 — Facing some resistance to change with systems or processes

Product Managers are responsible for the strategy and delivery of a product, and with that comes building efficient processes to ensure progress is managed effectively.

These systems are important for almost every function in the business to be able to quickly view and understand where the product’s progress is at.

Whether your team uses JIRA, Trello, Basecamp, Asana or a physical board, it is often up to the Product Manager to ensure these systems are in place - and are actually being used.

I’m too busy to track my work, Janice. These systems slow me down, plus I’m a senior so I don’t have to. Can you do it for me?

However, there is always a degree of resistance to change that comes with new systems or processes. They ultimately add more time and effort for those involved, so some ultimately view them as a burden.

It’s up to a Product Manager to effectively communicate the value and necessity of these systems or processes to everybody. Show someone why using JIRA for example helps make their life easier, or how it helps them measure their progress and effort.

4 — Being the interface between technical and non-technical staff

Product Managers play a key role as an interface between various functions.

We’ve cracked it Janice! So many people want to use AI to make this easier. We need one next week that will work for all 1,000,00 of our users

For the business side of a company, that means explaining the feasibility and estimations of completing various requests - while managing their expectations on time. For the engineering side, that means being able to identify schedules and methods that fit within their abilities, but that fit within a business’ required timeframes.

Actually pulling this off in practice is by no means an easy task, because you’re often facing off against competing agendas. One side wants something quickly, the other believes that it requires more time.

It’s a challenge being that interface, and finding an outcome that works for everyone.

5 — Having to follow a plan that doesn’t always feel right

I’m sure we’ve all heard or read somewhere the concept of the Product Manager being the CEO of their Product.

In reality, the CEO is the Product’s CEO - they run the company, employ the staff, employ you, perhaps they even started the company/product in the first place.

Ultimately this depends on context - but it often means that the CEO or other senior executives have a lot more influence over the product strategy than you may have.

Thanks for the insight Janice. I’ve just got a gut feeling that B is better than A, even though you think otherwise, so please start pursuing A.

This can be a frustrating challenge for a PM because you may have spent a lot of time thinking it over, only to then be overruled. Often, you simply have to go with the flow of certain decisions.

A great PM here will choose their approach carefully, often using data. If they know their executives have a certain angle, they may run some tests and use that data to justify a certain approach over the other.

It’s much harder to argue with real data than pushing your own perspective just because you “feel” it is right.

6 - Having to navigate a lot of competing agendas

Within a business, there are often a lot of different perspectives on one certain thing.

Janice, I think we should do A. However, John thinks we should do B, Aaron thinks we could do C and Liam thinks we should do D. We’re at a stalemate here. What're your thoughts?

These competing agendas are often tricky to juggle and need to be treated carefully. More often than not, nobody is “wrong” - they just want the things they require prioritised over someone else’s.

Finding the ‘right’ way to prioritise isn’t always easy.

When you run into a stalemate, it comes time to put on the high-level hat on and encourage everyone to consider putting their own KPIs aside for a moment. The question should turn to - what is the best outcome for our business, and our users?

Does putting John’s idea over Aaron’s mean we end up with a better outcome for our users, and for the business? 

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