In recognizing that the string of recent product successes had (perhaps!) inflated my ego and that that might likely affect my judgment, I decided to devote some time to more sobering aspects of being a Product Manager.
It is easy to get swept up in your team's triumphs, to celebrate (even minor) victories, and to take excessive pleasure in the praise others shower on you when times are good. I am as guilty as anyone of basking in the glow of success. Hitting your goals is satisfying indeed and it is tempting to linger there awhile in that satisfaction.
But it can affect your judgment if you get too caught up in your own hype. I was starting to feel like that was happening to me and I wanted to course correct before I began making poor product decisions. Surely there were some facets of my job or details of the product that were not going so well. I wanted to make sure I wasn't ignoring or just glossing over them. One careless misstep could effectively evaporate all the admiration.
What drove this decision
Credibility is crucial in this role. Product Managers must find a way make forward progress with little to no authority and to do that effectively, we must establish ourselves as capable decision makers. The challenge, of course, is that it takes much longer to build credibility than it does to lose it.
I have found that it is often a long march to establish good standing for yourself in the organization. But you can't get there - or hope to stay there long - if you misrepresent yourself by glossing over the many mistakes you make along the way. You have to acknowledge failures to your stakeholders, to your teams and to yourself.
I did not want to lose any of the forward progress I had made and that meant coming down out of the clouds and remind myself that I was still fallible.
The decision: Balance out all the congratulatory feedback and even my own eternal optimism by purposefully exploring activities that would knock me down a notch.
It seemed to me that a good way to knock myself down from the pedestal would be to engage in the kind of activities where there was no actual way to win. I would, therefore, seek out situations that would test my confidence but where the outcomes were not likely to be favorable for me.
Plan of attack
I found good opportunities to help me reset my ego. During this particular week, I tried out some new ideas that would serve up some humility. I think part of what made these exercises effective for me was that they were somewhat disconnected from my role in the organization. I did intentionally seek out product-related activities, but I would not be taking advantage of my job title to affect the respective outcomes.
Taking a turn at being the interviewee
I volunteered to help a colleague who was running a set of user tests for a mobile application. Specifically, he wanted to interview me as a target user of the app. His product initiative was unrelated to my company which meant less personal risk for me. In fact, I convinced myself that, should there be any missteps, my blunders would only be exposed to one other person.
And boy did I have some blunders! Well, technically, it is hard to say that you can get anything wrong in a usability test. As my colleague reminded me, "we are testing the app, not you." I have used that exact phrase in trying to set proper expectations when leading my own experiments, but it is hard to shake the feeling that, as an interviewee, you're not performing adequately.
At one point in the exercise, I thought I had successfully completed the task although it took me longer than I thought it should have. Must be the app I thought. Then, when I was politely informed that I actually had NOT accomplished the task, I was truly embarrassed.
when I was politely informed that I actually had NOT accomplished the task, I was truly embarrassed.
Being on the other side of the table helped me better understand the anxiety that comes with being interviewed. In the long run, this experience will undoubtedly make me a better interviewer, but I will admit that it had the sobering effect that I was looking for.
Reeling from a wave of negative customer feedback
In this same week, I had started to receive some strong reactions from our customers about a recent feature overhaul and none of it was positive. I can't think of anything much more humbling to a Product Manager than hearing that you may have got it wrong: "Can we just go back to the way it was before?"
The feedback was being collected by and funneled through our internal Customer Success team and we took it very seriously. Of course, my instinct, shared by the entire Product team, was to talk directly to the customer. We had, in fact, been doing that throughout the entire product cycle and had already incorporated earlier feedback into the feature through incremental releases.
"Can we just go back to the way it was before?"
Immediately, we went back to review our notes from these previous conversations which included several sessions with one of the customers who was now griping the loudest. I will admit that it is difficult to keep a cool head when intense emotions are involved.
I found this to be the perfect opportunity to revisit my convictions as a Product Manager, to reflect on how much better I still needed to be, and to remind myself how this particular job really never gets easier.
Proceed over a panel in a roomful of peers
And just to pile on even more, I also volunteered to participate as a moderator in a panel discussion for a group of Product Managers from the local community. I had never been a panel moderator and had never worked with this organization or its members.
Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying "Do one thing every day that scares you." Well if you are short on ideas, let me suggest trying your hand at moderating a panel of experts, most of whom are far more experienced than you, and guiding the conversation for a roomful of practitioners in your field.
I certainly felt the impact from each of the activities. Any one of them might have been sufficient but combining them all in a single week certainly helped me achieve my goal. And even if you're not working toward the exact same objectives, I can still recommend following some of these pursuits:
- Literally put yourself in your buyer's/user's shoes to help you better develop empathy
- Prepare yourself and your teams for confronting product mistakes so you will know how to move forward
- Do something that scares you, especially around your peers