Courageous product management

If you want to be a bad product manager, be timid and cautious. You don’t want to make any bad decisions, so be very careful about everything you do. Make sure to clear everything with all of the impacted stakeholders, and if any of them question your initiatives, be sure to put everything on hold and rethink your plans. Since the market is likely to change as you’re carrying out projects, don’t be afraid to put them on hold to reconsider in light of new information. If you can’t decide between two courses of action, wait and do lots of research, thinking, and soul-searching before making a decision (and hopefully by the time you have to, the situation will have changed and your decision will be irrelevant). Hopefully these suggestions will prevent anything from going wrong, but if it does, be sure to have a good explanation of why it’s not your fault.

If you want to be a good product manager, be courageous. You will make bad decisions. You will do things that upset some stakeholders. The market will change. You will have to choose between two options when you have no idea which one is better and don’t have more time to do more research or investigation. This is part of what product management is about. If you are not prepared for these types of situations then you may not be prepared to be a product manager.

These may not happen too frequently, though invariably they will occur. You can succeed by leading with courage. Ultimately, if you’re knowledgeable, reasonable, and perceptive, you should be able to do well as a product manager. Create a vision, instill that in your team, and use that to guide you through the difficult times. It’s not easy to always have courage — especially when things go wrong and you take the blame — but ultimately it will prove more successful than showing fear, timidness, or lack of willingness to take responsibility.

Though he’s writing with respect to managing software development, Reginald Braithwaite’s comments on courage apply equally to product management.

If one course of action is obviously superior to all the others, articulate things and move on. But the act of management occurs when you have two or more meritorious options in front of you. It is especially difficult when the stakes are high and your decision could lead to success or disaster. That is when you are managing: when you exercise your courage.

There you are: you are being held accountable for results. So if your decision leads to poor results, you’ll take the blame without whining that you “followed the plan.” You have the authority to carry out your decision: you cannot later complain that “you had the right idea, but the team failed to follow through.” And you had several reasonable options, so you know that hindsight will reveal other options available to you.

But you have the courage, and you manage: you accept responsibility, you exercise authority, and you make a decision. That’s management.

There is a fine line between courage and steadfastness or arrogance. Product management requires consultation with others and adaptation to changing markets, customer needs, technology and social trends. While courage implies accountability and responsibility, being courageous involves knowing the way to instill that accountability and responsibility in everyone while still being ultimately accountable and responsible. Good product managers can exercise their courage properly and still be respected and successful at the end of the day.