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Embrace the Hard Questions: Adversity in Product Management

Ryan Frederick | June 14th, 2022

Dealing with and overcoming adversity is one of the most important ways to learn and grow. Product managers get better at the craft by experiencing adversity more than things going well. The Pittsburgh Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin, says, “Iron sharpens iron.” Adversity is the iron sharpening all of us personally and professionally.

The ironic part of growth through adversity is that we structure our lives and work to avoid it. We do everything we can to make sure things go smoothly with as few bumps along the way as possible. We seek comfort, stability, and security, hoping to avoid adversity. We work incredibly hard to remove and mitigate adversity so our lives and work can be as low-stress as possible. But if Mr. Tomlin is correct, and I believe he is, then we have to encounter adversity to improve. Product management, more than many other careers, is about embracing the uncertain and unknown, which often are wrapped in or cause subsequent adversity.

Even the strongest of us can only deal with so much adversity before it takes its toll. But for those who have relatively adversity-free lives, we need adversity now and then to test and evolve our mental, emotional, or physical capacity. Too many of us seek comfort and security to the extent that when problems happen, we don’t have the temperament or skills to deal with them calmly.

Product managers deal with the most adversity in a product team. It’s just a fact. The designers, developers, team members, and product managers know it. With that said, rarely is a product manager going to get accolades from team members for dealing with adversity they don’t have to as part of their roles. Product managers also have to deal with more significant adversity than their teammates, not just a larger volume of adversity. The adversity product managers have to deal with either energizes them or deflates them. The adversity product managers face is part of why people love being a product manager or don’t.

Product managers are responsible for dealing with adversity but aren’t necessarily compensated for it. It is part of the job, as the saying goes. As a result, many product managers will feel under-appreciated and under-compensated. Anyone starting in product management should know they aren’t getting additional hazard pay for dealing with more adversity than their teammates.

Product management encourages adversity when it is done well. Spending time with customers to elicit problem context and impact is an unending journey of adversity. So is analyzing product friction and shortcomings. A product manager’s job involves uncovering, digging into, and overcoming problems…adversity. I believe the best product managers pursue adversity. Not that product managers go looking to start a fight, but the best product managers know the validation, insights, and path forward exist amongst a bunch of thorns and difficult conversations. The best product managers are also self-aware and develop techniques to deal with the resulting frustrations and stress. There is bound to be fatigue when iron sharpens iron. Product managers learn when and how to recharge to continue to work through identifying and overcoming problems to improve their product.

The product managers who intentionally and actively seek adversity are the ones who are more likely to create better, more valuable, and more successful products. These product managers embrace the stuff that provides the most insights and value. Things like identifying that what users say they want is frequently different from what they want, teammates are saying they don’t know how to solve a problem yet later being able to solve it because of steadfast championing and belief from a product manager, or fighting for patience from upper management not to push functionality for the sake of functionality. The list goes on and is practically endless.

Product management is a hard job because it is steeped in adversity. Creating anything is hard and being at the center of the creation is equally challenging and exciting. Because product management begins and ends with problem-solving and solving a problem has to provide value for both users and a company value, a product manager’s existence is a series of overcoming adversity.

Product managers who avoid the hard questions and work will surely also avoid adversity, but they will also be part of likely not creating a very valuable and impactful product. Product managers who believe they can do the job while avoiding adversity or at least attempting to don’t understand the role of product management.

Product managers need to develop a base perspective that they don’t yet know enough about a problem or feature. Product managers’ ability to approach their work like an archeological dig (i.e., you don’t know what you will run into as you keep digging) is critical to their success.

Product managers have to work to understand the user’s perspective and then defend it. Product managers have to be the agent for users when the users aren’t present, which is most of the time. Being an agent to defend, protect, and advocate for people who aren’t present is a heavy burden to carry for product managers amongst constant pressure to do more, faster.

All is not lost, however. Product managers who embrace the adversity associated with the craft will get better over time at managing it. Experienced product managers gauge the severity and urgency of adversity to respond accordingly. Sometimes this means shutting down active design and development work based on new information that significantly brings into question the current path. Talk about adversity! No one wants to be the worker who shuts down a production line because of some flaw, but product managers have to be sometimes.

The longer someone is a product manager at a company with a supportive and product-centric focus, the more they will become comfortable with the myriad adversity they, the team, and the product will face. In the best of situations, a product manager’s team and the company also become more comfortable with adversity and all become anti-fragile. Here’s to acknowledging and embracing adversity in product management to become more anti-fragile as the iron sharpens us.