Confessions of a Product Manager

Last year, I joined a new company and I decided to confess my failures as a Product Manager. It was a bold move for my first week, but it had two purposes:

  • Set the expectations of how I work.
  • Ensure we don’t repeat these failures in my new role.

I must now confess publicly!

Confession 1 — Getting lost in the solution

I began my career as a developer. I solved problems and as a team we owned the solution. I knew the architecture, the codebase and I knew how to solve problems the Product Manager (PM) gave us. When I became a Product Owner (PO) for the same team, my failure was that I knew everything inside the product.

I lost myself in the solution, by imagining what had to change in the code and telling my team what to do and how to do it! This caused friction. After reading “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek, I realised I had been explaining things the wrong way round. By starting with “Why?” in my vision and user stories, it had shifted our dynamics from conflict and friction to a collaborative team.

I had to focus on the problem and be able to answer the team when they ask “Why?” or be pro-active and begin with “Why?”.

Confession 2 — Focus on building the right thing

Conflict of interest

This may be the strangest confession, but I assure you it had caused me issues. There are usually 3 responsibilities in a team:

  • Build the right thing (PO)
  • Build the thing right (Team)
  • Build it fast (Scrum Master)

I took this as a rule not to be broken. However, if we each strive for only our own responsibility we create conflict and forces us not to compromise.

My realisation came from what my Scrum Master. He said, that it is all three we should strive for. If none of us are committed to do all three, we would fail to achieve it.

Confession 3 — A product is about Features, Features and Features!

I had joined a new team where I had inherited a roadmap from a previous PO. It was a roadmap of features that had been requested or promised by our customers or stakeholders. The problem was that in the first quarter, we delivered only a single feature. Since I fell into the roadmap administrator role, the new roadmap shifted all the priorities across one quarter. This created frustrated customers and a frustrated team.

The root cause came down to communication, which is the foundation of a PO role. In “The Expert” video the team listened to what the customer wanted but the customer and the manager did not listen to the expert. Meetings like these causes the communication to break down and disappear.

Using communication skills to listen to the team, stakeholders and our customers, I gained great insights into their needs. I had evolved the roadmap from a list of features/promises to a problems/goals that would resonate with all the stakeholders. When delivering the roadmap presentations to our customers they understood what we were doing and agreed with the pains we’re trying to solve without committing to a solution.

Confession 4 — Getting lost in the solution… again

I admit it… I fell into this trap again. However, this problem arose again once I had increased the output of the team. I had no time to actually figure out what to build. It was always too late. After months attempting to achieve this alone I had tried the “Three Amigos” approach to share the responsibility of defining the specifics of a feature. I saw a great improvement in refinement sessions and the delivery of stories. However, it seemed to always be too late.

Using the cross functional movie trio formula, I decided to form “The Deathly Hallows” (from Harry Potter). A product discovery team with PO, UX and an Engineer. Our role was to take the requests of the stakeholders and build prototypes and requirements for the squad in the delivery stage. Like confession 1, I did not have the sole responsibility to discover a solution to build (build the right thing).

Confession 5 — Managing a product without a strategy

By this point in my career I had always had the privilege to having a great strategies in place. I faced my first product that didn’t have one. Priorities changed, causing features to be incomplete and unusable. Prioritising a feature/problem without a strategy is like planning a route without a destination. This was very true. Without a strategy or vision, how can I ensure that we are taking the right steps in the right direction.

How I viewed thinking strategically at the time

I had to improve and learn about product strategies, business plans, vision statements to give us direction and a purpose. As a result I would always remind the team, in three simple slides, about our vision, our product principles and objectives for the current year. All were derived from understanding the problems we had to solve for our market and the position we were in at that time.

Confession 6 — Getting lost in the solution miserably

After forming the “Deathly Hallows” I had realised that we had information overload and we had discovered many solutions but again we did not have the time to deliver them. In parallel to forming the product strategy we had improved the discovery process.

My role became more of a consolidator and observer. I listened to the customers, users and stakeholders and using this information and the newly formed strategy, I define various themes with goals. The consolidation of product requests into themes helped focus the “Deathly Hallows” team to discover bigger problems with bigger outcome.

As an experiment which I had not had the pleasure to see the result of was to try a more goal orientated approach. After reading “Impact Mapping” we had formed a mind-map on discovering what to build.

  • Why? What is the goal
  • Metrics — What is the success metric or KPI?
  • Who? Which persona can achieve the goal. Keep the options open.
  • How? How can the persona achieve the goal? Vote for the best options
  • What? What steps are needed for that persona to achieve the goal

As a result we had discovered various methods to solve the customer problem and began prototyping and validating the solution. Sadly, this was the end of my journey and weeks later I would give this presentation . During my journey I had become to realise what it meant to be a Product Manager.

What I believe we should do!

In reality, I realise that my journey will never end and there is always something new to learn. As Winston Churchill said “Success is not final; Failure is not fatal; It is the courage to continue that counts”. So to all the product people, celebrate your failure and learn from it, and keep going.

I have a few more confessions since I created this presentation… but that’s another story ;).

My Presentation

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Gino Toro

Gino Toro

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