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Dealing With Conflicting Advice As A Product Manager

homer getting conflicting advice

One of the most underrated skills for Product Management is the ability to synthesize a lot data, with much of it simultaneously pointing you in conflicting directions. It’s not dissimilar to trying to make a decision by looking at what “internet experts” recommend…

As a Product Manager, you will be getting input from a lot of different sources: customers (of course), analysts, competitors, prospects, advisors, industry experts, colleagues, partners, management and more. If you think you’re likely to basically hear the same thing over and over from all these stakeholders, so you can just focus on what you hear the most frequently (or loudest), you’d be wrong (for more than one reason). In fact, if these type of conflicts give you a headache, then Product Management is probably not the job for you.

Fred Wilson recently wrote about a similar experience that startups in an accelerator program go through, with every person they meet as part of the program (smart, experienced people) offering them solid but contradictory advice. He called that specific phenomenon mentor/investor whiplash. What these new startups & CEO’s are going through is what a Product Manager also has to deal with, day in, day out.

But I believe conflicting information should not pose a problem for a few reasons. Firstly, you should already be absolutely crystal clear on what your vision is for where your product is going… what will it do, what will it not do, who will use, why will they use it, what does it look like, what makes it unique, etc. If the feedback you are getting would mean steering you away from your vision, then you want to apply a very high discount factor to it. I’m not saying ignore it or don’t be open to new ideas, but it’s critical you have total commitment to your vision.

There’s nothing worse than a Product Manager who flip flops around on their product strategy based on who they spoke to last (believe me – I’ve worked for more than one of them). You will lose the confidence of your team very quickly, and you’re going to end up with a crappy product in the not-so-distant future. So as long as you have a clear picture of what your future looks like, it makes it very easy to decide how some feedback/advice/idea falls into that picture (or not). If you’re operating without a vision, you have no “filing cabinet” to put the feedback into, so you can’t distinguish good/bad, helpful/useless, relevant/irrelevant.

One of the character traits I can’t stand are people who like to surround themselves by “yes men”. To hear only one view point before you decide something is the worst case scenario: you miss implications and opportunities. So this leads me to the second reason why I don’t see conflicting information as a bad thing: when you get all differing data points, you can understand everybody’s perspective, get new ideas, and see both sides of any decision. This in turn should give you personally new ideas, things to consider, and stretch your own thinking.

People tell me I tend to ask a lot of hard questions, but I just don’t see it that way. I think if you don’t have answers to all of the questions coming your way, then maybe you haven’t thought through everything in the first place. And if that’s the case, I personally would appreciate the back and forth dialog, not complain that the questions are too hard. Questions are not criticism – it’s a way to make sure you’ve thought everything through. I personally always ask people on my team to push back hard on anything I say that they disagree with – it’s much better to hear it early, than after you’ve finished executing on a bad assumption.

5 whysLastly, getting conflicting information will often provide you with the prompt to really make sure you get to the root of the feedback/suggestion. Some people might explain this as asking “why” 5 times. Let’s say you have a customer request your product to add feature XYZ, it looks logical and something other customers you know will want it, so you put it on your backlog. But then another customer asks you for the exact opposite thing of feature XYZ. Because of the resulting cognitive dissonance, you will ask “why” they want that. Only when you ask why, will you get to the real feedback/insight. This is what you should have done the first time around anyway, but my point is that conflicting information often forces you to have that discipline because your brain will want to resolve these two opposing view points.

So as you can tell by now, i think if you are Product manager, you should be seeking out conflicting information, not shying away from it – it is a good thing, not a bad thing. Whenever my managers used to tell me I did a good job on something, I would say “don’t tell me what I’m doing well – tell me what I could be doing better”. So I was very glad to read the following earlier this week:

“They won’t always be right, but I find the single biggest error people make is to ignore constructive, negative feedback. Don’t tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t like.” – Elon Musk

Note that this does not mean you have to agree with the negative feedback and change your approach, but always be seeking alternative views. And on that bombshell, I’ll open up the comments to any hard questions you may have for me 🙂


Why I’m starting a blog, and why you should too

no reviews

If you don’t have an online presence today, the reality is that your the equivalent of the product with no reviews on Amazon. And just how often do you buy products with no reviews, or try a new restaurant with no reviews on Yelp/OpenTable?

I believe there has been a general shift in people’s thinking, where a lack of social proof is now an indictment of mediocrity (or worse). In the past, all products, businesses, and people were given “the benefit of the doubt”, but now, having no information available online is actually taken as a negative signal.

I noticed this in my own behavior fairly recently when my wife and I were trying to pick a pediatrician when our daughter was born. It was so natural for us to go online and check out reviews, that it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that we are no doubt excluding a bunch of great doctors who just happen to have no online presence, Yet even if that’s true, how would I even evaluate these other doctors to decide who to go and see?

Note that this behavior is not about reviews, it’s about getting more data so you can make more informed decisions. If I wanted to go find a personal trainer right now, it would be important they share the same core beliefs as me. For example, a lot of people tell you squats are bad because they hurt your knees, which I disagree with (as long as you have good form). I also don’t agree with a lot of the nutritional advice out there, so I wouldn’t want someone who is going to try to convert me over to their beliefs. As a result, a 5-star rating means nothing to me if that person is a cardio-specialist vegan whose never squatted a day in their life, because it’s not at all what I’m looking for. Without that person putting out there in the public domain, what they believe in and what they know, how do I know which personal trainer would be the best choice for me?

So, I guess it has sunk in for me that if you have any kind of ambition in your professional life, whether it be starting your own company, promotion, change of career, changing companies, hiring great people to come work with you, selling your products or services, or whatever really, you need to put yourself out there in the public… just like any other product or service on the web.

And just like in the personal trainer example, it’s not about getting everyone to love you so you get 5 star reviews. It’s just about putting your own thoughts out there to find like-minded people. I’m not shooting for “internet famous” here with this blog – I just believe that not having a public persona is no longer a tenable strategy if you’re ambitious.