I’ve written this from the perspective of a struggling product manager but the advice here is valid for many other professions.
If you’re aware that you’re struggling to grow as a product manager (or your current role) then congratulations. Self-awareness is the most difficult step to improving and you’ve taken that step.
If you’re not aware that you’re in a rut, here are some signs:
- You care about the problems solving discussions but all your meetings are about feature execution.
- Prioritisation is handed down to you and you don’t have a voice in changing this. Your voice is only heard when you have to present tradeoffs in execution.
- You’re passionate about using data to make better decisions but your company is a feature factory, never looking back to understand how your product is performing in the hands of the customers.
- Your performance is measured primarily on how fast you deliver features not how well your product is doing.
- You can’t seem to apply any of the standard product manager practices you read about in books and blogs.
If any of these describes your current state and you would like to contribute more either at your company or grow in your professional career, there are a few things you can consider.
Remember, having product management knowledge is not enough to be good at the job. Like other types of learning, we need a practical understanding of how to apply the knowledge before we can be good enough. For instance, you can read all you want about how to hold a racket but only time on the court would make you a better tennis player.
Ask the right people WHY
The first step is to always ask why. When a decision is made and it doesn’t make sense to you, ask why. As much as possible, try to understand the reason behind the decision. Make sure you’re not making any assumptions.
By asking why you’re setting up the premise to offer suggestions that your stakeholders may have missed. You’re also providing an opportunity to start contributing to the major decisions.
For instance, if you’re not using data and you ask why, the answer you get will give you an insight on how to suggest improvements with the use of data and that could help you introduce data analysis in the decision making.
However, this approach works if your decision-makers are willing to listen to your questions and provide a good response. Unfortunately, not all stakeholders are willing to listen or spend time having problem-solving discussions. No matter how hard you try, the reality is there are situations in which asking why isn’t enough.
Take on a side project
If you’re trying to grow in your current role but there aren’t many opportunities to practice what you’re learning, another thing you can do is to take on a side project.
Yes, side projects are not only for engineers or designers. A product manager’s side project is more likely to succeed than that of an engineer or designer. The reason is that a good PM understands the product development lifecycle than most other roles in technology.
Taking on a side project would give you full control over the entire product development lifecycle. This end to end practice allows you to have a hands-on experience on things that you might not get to do in your daily job.
If you’ve spent time trying to understand the decision making by asking a lot of whys without success. If you also don’t have time for a side project, perhaps because you keep having tight deadlines that are difficult to meet, then the last resort is to leave.
The longer you spend without good practice, the more bad practice becomes a habit for you. This is worse for your career as a product manager than no practice at all. Leaving a job that won’t let you grow would free up your time for the side project (turning it into the main project) and give you good hands-on practice on the right way to do things.
If you’re not growing you’re dying.
In everything we do, we should always desire growth and improvement. The moment we settle and stop growing is the moment we start declining. To get better, we need to learn and practice what we learn.
The moment we realise we’re not improving, we need to take action before it’s too late. This is something I want to always have at the back of my mind.