Originally a late-night brain dump on Twitter, I thought it’d flesh some of it out a bit here.
Product Management is complex. Complex because it’s situational which makes being a good Product Manager about being adaptive.
More than that. It’s being able to contextualize and read the situation in order to adapt appropriately.
A struggle that many of us have after being in the profession for some time is the realization that the craft is not black-and-white — sweeping statements about product management like “Product Managers are the CEO of the product” are generally only half-true. We find ourselves giving the advice “it depends” far too often.
So here are 18 paradoxes of Product Management that I, like many of you, face daily.
1) Solve customer problems vs Achieve business goals
Solving customer problems is not the be-all of Product Management.
Rather when we look to solve a customer problem we must do it through the lens of our strategy and business goals.
2) Good enough vs Amazing experience
Building amazing experiences must be offset by speed to market and what is just enough to solve the problem and provide value.
MVPs obviously come to mind but shipping a terrible experience doesn’t always mean it’s going to give value.
A terrible experience can be worse than the current customer workaround — which is often dubbed as ‘negative value’.
3) Confidence vs Uncertainty
Having confidence in your product and the direction whilst also remaining skeptical and acknowledging the inherent uncertainty in product management.
Come up with ideas like you’re right but test them like you’re wrong!
4) Creative vs Reality
Knowing when to be creative, innovative and push the boundaries vs when to play it safe and acknowledging the commercial, feasibility and desirability realities is a constant battle for Product Managers.
You may say that product is one giant tradeoff — always looking for that intersect between pushing the realms of possibilities and actually being able to do it within the constraints you have.
5) Pragmatic vs Ambitious
Product Managers need to be ambitious but they also need to be pragmatic — to know when to push for higher standards, goals, etc but also when practicalities prevail.
6) Invention vs Maintenance
We all like shiny new things — creating new features, solving new problems for customers — but invention must be balanced against maintaining what you already have.
The latest cool thing is meaningless to your customers if your product keeps crashing.
7) Short-term vs Long-term
Strategic. Visionary. Innovative. These are words that often get thrown around when describing product management. However for those of us in the gig long enough we know that the role is not that sexy.
Yes, many get into Product Management wanted to be the next Steve Jobs but reinventing the future is only part of the role. Building short-term gains, like revenue, stability, etc are often necessary steps to take before being able to tackle that long-term vision.
8) Data vs Intuition
Data is a Product Managers best friend but so is your own gut. Knowing when to listen to the data and when to follow your gut is where the art and science of product collide.
This is where ‘confidence vs uncertainty’ shows it’s face again. Having the confidence to follow your gut needs to be counteracted with the curiosity and acknowledgment that you may be wrong therefore seek data to challenge your ideals.
9) Growth vs Retention
A classic product problem — how to grow your top of funnel whilst retaining your existing customers — who’s needs are more important? The prospects you are trying to win over or those who you already have their business?
Never a simple answer and one that will vary depending on where you are in the product life-cycle. Early on growth may be more of a priority but as you mature and near your market gap, retention may rule.
10) Protect the team vs Challenging the team
Whether you like it or not as a Product Manager you are in a leadership position. With that comes a number of additional responsibilities, one of them is to protect the team.
This doesn’t mean that you hide everything from them, nor lie. But it does mean that a part of your day-to-day is filtering out the politics and noise that happens outside the confines of the team, only letting the relevant information.
But at the same time as a leader, you also need to challenge them at times and hold them to account.
11) Give credit for success vs Take responsibility for failures
Another feature of leadership is being in the shadows — shining the light on others whilst bearing the brunt when shit goes wrong.
Its never your success in product, it’s the team’s — but paradoxically it’s also never their failure, it’s yours.
This is leadership and the role of Product Management.
12) All responsibility vs No authority
A classic feature of Product Management is to have all the responsibility but no authority.
This is one of the reasons why the more ‘human skills’ are so important for Product Managers to be successful — being able to influence without authority is a skill unto it’s own.
Just because you can put together a fantastic roadmap means nothing if you cannot influence others to adopt it and execute it.
13) Take risks vs Play it safe
Making bets, dealing with uncertainty and accepting risk is all part of building great products, however risks can be both managed and calculated.
Blindly taking on extra or unnecessary risk may pay off here-or-there but luck won’t always be in your favor.
The level of risk you take on will be up to you, your product, situation and organization — taking on bigger risks are often worth the downside when you’re a small start-up with little to lose. But when your a large organization with thousands of customers relying on you to perform core actions of their day or business, playing it safe is nothing to be shunned upon.
14) ‘Jack of all trades’ vs Subject matter expert
This paradox was a whole post in of itself — and one of my most popular posts to date: ‘Why Generalists Make Great Product Managers’.
Building great products is a broad craft, it takes many people and a whole variety of different skills to make great products happen.
As the one who binds all this together it’s necessary to have a board set of knowledge across these many aspects as to best know how to leverage them.
Paradoxical because one could argue that becoming more of a subject matter expert in Product Management would require you to become more of a generalist.
15) Look after yourself vs Put the team first
Achieving things through others is a common theme when it comes to the role of Product Management. You are often putting the team first and addressing your own needs second — this is good leadership.
This is done in many different ways, from protecting them as I mentioned above to being more of a servant leader and ensuring they have what they need before tending to yourself.
But as paradoxical as it may sound in order to best serve the team, you need to also put yourselves first — you need to look after yourself so you can look after them. You are no good to your team if you are a mess and ineffective.
16) Lead from the front vs Empower others
Similar to above, another common paradox of leadership is leading from the front vs empowering the team.
A common leadership anti-pattern is heroism, trying to save everyone, do everything yourself or to think that you must have all the answers.
Yes as a leader you need to lead by example — show the way, be the first to jump in — but that doesn’t mean that you’re always at the front “leading the pack”.
Great leaders are ones who inspire and build conditions for high agency.
But again there is also another anti-pattern of always leading from the rear.
Believe it or not, but there are times where taking control and a more traditional command style is necessary.
Consider times of crisis these are contexts where decisions by committee and to fail safely are not there. Decisions need to be made rapidly with conviction, there’s little time for a debate about it.
An example I use is to imagine going into surgery and the surgeon asking you where you would like them to start!
This is often referred to as Contextual (or Situational) leadership. It’s all about knowing the context you’re in and adapting your style.
You can’t always be empowering others and nor can you always be the one making all the decisions.
17) No Timelines vs Needing Indicative Dates
Ahh timelines, a classic debate. Yes we suck at predicting the future — all kinds of biases appear here; hindsight bias, optimism bias, availability bias, dunning-kruger effect, gamblers fallacy, illusion of control, planning fallacy, etc… but equally when you’re in a system where you need to plan around costs/dependencies/etc indicative timeframes are often necessary.
Now before you shoot that down hear me out. If you’re a small startup or a Product Manager with a small P&L, you’ve only got so much cash in the bank. In order to make decisions about where to best spend that money needs an input on cost which is often heavily affected by time.
Another example is cost of delay. Getting a greater understanding of how much cost of delay you will incur for doing something before something else needs the input of a timeframe to calcultate.
Similarly if you have dependencies you need to have an indicative timeframe in order to effectively plan — how much time do I roughly have until X comes and we can do Y?
I can give examples all day. But none of this changes the fact that we suck at predicting the future and as a Product Manager you’ve often need timeframes to make informed decisions. The trick is to accept that imperfection nature of them and avoid setting them in stone (or sometimes even communicating them) to allow for change.
18) Safe to fail vs Achieve outcomes
Experimentation is a core part of building great products. In order to achieve this we need to build an environment where we are safe to fail — safe to make a bet and see how it pans out.
However you cannot be failing all the time, nor can the mantra of “move fast and break things” always be applicable. We need to still be achieving outcomes constant failure is not a good place to be — but failure is necessary to learn.
Further, you want to be able to set ambitious goals and know that you won’t be ridiculed for not reaching them. However again, constantly missing your goals no matter how ambitious can become demotivating.
A Deeper Opportunity
But there’s a deeper opportunity behind all this.
Many would call them tradeoffs, some would say “either/or”, but within complex domains like building products, things are again not so straight forward.
I often use the analogy of a natural phenemina known as ‘The Edge Effect’ — this is where two different ecosystems meet — like a rainforest meeting a desert. In these ‘edge effects’ a mico-ecosystem is formed which are known to have some of the most diversity seen in nature.
This is very much how innovation often works. We find innovation not within the freedomless bounds of a well funded research lab — although accidents and luck do happen — rather innovation are more often found in crisis, within constraints, like two extreme ecosystems meeting.
Like ‘edge effects’ these paradoxes present a deeper opportunity, to use them to serve you and not the other way around. To embrace the constraints and overcome them through new and innovative ideas — yes you can have speed and quality, it doesn’t need to be ‘either/or’.