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The Best Product Managers Have The Worst Ideas

It’s hard finding good product people. That fact is really a tragedy because they are probably the most important part of any product-focused organization. I think there is a misconception in the software industry that product managers have a good sense of “what users want”, “what the next feature should be” or “ux design”. In reality, I’ve come to believe that the best product managers aren’t good at any of that, and they know it.

What is a product manager?

According to Indeed,

A Product Manager, or Product Design Manager, is responsible for overseeing all activities relating to researching, designing and marketing products on behalf of their employer. Their duties include completing market research to find out more about competitor products or customer needs, overseeing a team of product professionals and department budgets and coordinating with the customer service department to identify potential product defects or customer suggestions.

I think this is actually a decent description of a good product manager. Notice how first on the list of duties is “market research”. My experience is, by definition, anecdotal but I’ve found that far too many product people think that their job is to sit back in their favorite armchair and be “the ideas guy”.

In my experience, product people are rarely much better at pulling ideas out of their asses than engineers are. What makes a good product manager is a relentless need to validate or reject each (probably bad) idea that rears its ugly head.

How important is having good product people?

According to failory, The #1 reason startups fail is because they never found product-market fit. 34% of failed ventures are a result of not finding the right problem to solve. The second and third most common reasons, marketing problems and team problems, only account for 22% and 18% of failed startups respectively.

In other words, in 34% of failed startups, the product manager(s) failed to:

  • Identify a critical pain point
  • Design a product that sufficiently solves it

Keep in mind that “tech problems” only account for 6% of failed startups. If you know what to build, building it is usually the easy part. (There are of course exceptions if you’re trying to build flying cars or go to Mars or something)

Good engineers can be hired. Budgets can be found. Bugs can be fixed. The real challenge in a product-focused company is finding the right problem to solve, and identifying a product design that actually solves it.

So remind me why good product people have bad ideas?

It’s not actually “having bad ideas” that is important. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with having good ideas. The problem is when a product manager believes they have good ideas – whether they’re good or not. Every idea that a team has should be formed into hypotheses that can be tested in the market, and critically, with some rejection criteria baked in. Let me give some examples.

HypothesisRejection Criteria
People want a tool that automatically removes spam better than Gmail.Talk to 30 heavy Gmail users, if less than 5 would define their spam as “exhausting”, reject.
Marketing teams write content, but forget to engage with their audiences.Create a landing page for a tool that promises to boost Twitter engagement by 20%. Spend $250 on ads targeting social marketers. If less than 10 people sign up for the waiting list, reject.

The best product managers take product ideas, formulate them into testable hypotheses, and then go out and test them with as little bias as they can muster.

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Have questions or feedback?

Follow and hit me up on Twitter @q_vault if you have any questions or comments. If I’ve made a mistake in the article, please let me know so I can get it corrected!