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20 common product management mistakes and how to avoid them20 common product management mistakes and how to avoid them20 common product management mistakes and how to avoid them

20 common product management mistakes and how to avoid them

The world of product management can be an intimidating place. Product managers are invariably busy and have a ton of responsibility, and with so much going on, it's easy to make mistakes.

Luckily, many of those mistakes are relatively easy to avoid. So with that in mind, here are the 20 most common mistakes we've seen people make (and made ourselves) as product managers, each with some simple ways of avoiding them.

Product management process mistakes:

Some product management mistakes arise because of gaps in product management processes. This means that even if the individuals working on a product are talented and hardworking, they aren't going to achieve their goals. Let's explore some of these process mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Not having something to aim for (or aiming for the wrong thing)

This first mistake sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised how many product managers work on products where there is no product vision or clear set of goals to guide what they are making.

Working without a north star to guide you generally leads to building a product that doesn't deliver value for anyone, and in turn is not commercially successful. It's also unrewarding and disillusioning for you and your team.

How to avoid this mistake: Create a product vision, or seek it out if there already is one at your company. You can also use a goal format such as OKRs to work out how the work you do daily is related to your product vision. To find out more about how to create a product vision, [download our ebook on the topic - link to ebook landing page]

2. Not involving the right people in the right processes at the right time

To be a successful product manager, you need to be great at getting the right people collaborating and giving feedback on the product at the points in your processes where they add the most value.

One of the most common process mistakes is not getting early feedback on what you are working on. Whether it's customer feedback on your value proposition or talking to an engineer about a feature you're working on, getting the right feedback early in the process can help you avoid costly mistakes later or simply make your job easier.

Another common mistake here is to work on product strategy alone before presenting it back with a 'grand reveal'. This is sure to backfire because you've missed something important or because people feel like their perspective was left out.

How to avoid this mistake: Map out your product development process as you would do a user journey. At each step in the process, make a list of who would be valuable to involve so you can prepare the best way of engaging them ahead of time.

3. Involving too many people in everything

Design by committee makes the product development process slow and unfocused. You want to get the right people involved in the process, as mentioned in the previous point, but you also need to avoid groupthink and the other problems associated with 'too many cooks'.

How to avoid this mistake: It's really common for everyone in a particular function or group to want to be involved and give their input. This is not reasonable. In these cases, you can ask the department or group to nominate a representative. That person is then responsible for feeding the right information to their group and collecting feedback or gaining consensus, so you only deal with one person, but on behalf of an entire group.

In addition to who you will engage at each stage in your product management process, plan out how you will involve them to use their time most effectively. The typical tools you can use are:

  • Interviews and surveys. For gathering general research, ideas, and opinions.
  • Document reviews. For getting feedback and sign-off.
  • Workshops. For deep involvement in the process, such as co-design.
  • Informal chats. For getting buy-in and casual feedback.

4. Building too much too soon

Almost every product manager has done this at some stage in their career, whether it's because they are over-confident in their research or simply because they aren't aware of the alternatives.

Building a fully-featured product then finding out that it's the wrong thing for the audience doesn't just waste money, it wastes time that you could have spent testing and learning what customers really want to buy.

How to avoid this mistake: Take a test-and-learn approach to delivering solutions. This approach gives you time to refine the solution so that it meets customer needs or have something small enough that it's easy to throw it out and pivot when you're very off-base.

5. Building too little too late

The flipside to the previous point is releasing an under-featured or flawed product that doesn't deliver value to your customers. It can undermine your brand and reputation when customers are sold something that doesn't deliver the value it promised.

How to avoid this mistake: This can happen for 2 reasons. The first is when you're chasing the competition and just trying to add what they've already offered. To avoid this, you need to very clearly understand your customer problems and prioritize the features that are most valuable to them. A continuous discovery process is the way to solve that. The second reason this happens is when what you're delivering is so big, it takes too long to get to market and the market has changed before you release it. Here, delivering in small increments is the solution.

Product management mistakes because of misunderstandings:

There are some core concepts in product management that you need to be absolutely clear on if you're going to be successful. When you don't understand these concepts clearly, or when you mistake one for another, the consequences can be disastrous.

One way to avoid the mistakes in this category is to make sure you understand the concepts well before you apply them. Now let's examine some commonly confused product management concepts and the problems they can cause.

6. Confusing the buyer (customer) with the user

A common mistake that trips up a lot of product managers is confusing the customer (the person who actually buys the product) with the user. It's an easy mistake to make. Sometimes the buyer is the user, sometimes they are a kind of user but not the main one, and other times they are not a user at all.

Not being clear on who the buyer and user are for your product means that you won't get the results you want from most of the product development frameworks, canvases and other tools that you might be using. It also makes it difficult to write the messaging and market your product effectively.

For example, if you were developing a time-tracking and billing app for consultancies, your buyer would probably be the head of operations and your main users would be the consultants who need to submit their timesheets. Operations managers (buyers) might buy it because it makes their billing more efficient or helps them schedule resource better. On the other hand, the consultants probably only care about making it as easy as possible to submit their timesheets.

How to avoid this mistake: When you are creating your customer profiles, make a clear distinction between buyers and other users. If none of the users in your list is the actual buyer of the product – you need to do some more research to find out who the actual buyer is!

7. Confusing yourself with the buyer

Some product managers have the luxury of working on a product they would buy themselves. For most of us, though, the question 'Would I buy this?' or 'Is this valuable to me?' is a distraction that can lead to us building the wrong product.

It can also make it tempting not to speak to real customers because you think you know what they want, meaning you miss out on valuable insight that can help you build a better product.

How to avoid this mistake: Create customer profiles and research them thoroughly. Use data from real customers who match those profiles to help you make decisions related to your product.

8. Confusing features, benefits and value

When you've spent a long time working on a feature that you're really proud of, it's only natural that you want to talk about it. And that's fine, as long as you do it consistently, in the right place and at the right time.

If you don't, it's easy to end up with marketing materials that are difficult to understand because they mix up lists of features and benefits, or that don't even talk about the benefits of your product and are just lists of features.

Not being clear on the difference between features, benefits and value can also lead to building products with many features that customers don't use or aren't willing to pay for.

How to avoid this mistake: Use a product development methodology such as Jobs To Be Done, that focuses on working out what the customer's most important problems are before thinking about what features to build to solve those problems.

When you are talking about features, benefits and value, be clear on the difference – here's an example to help. Imagine you are working on a productivity app:

Feature: forward emails directly to your to-do list to create tasks

Benefit: don't need to copy-paste between apps

Value: save time and get more done

9. Confusing building the right product with building the product right

Building the right product vs. building the product right is a common expression in product management, and with good reason.

It's tempting to spend a lot of time and resources building your product in the 'perfect' way, that is 'building the product right', when it would be more effective to test something lower-fidelity earlier to make sure you are delivering value for customers 'building the right product'.

Most product managers will need to strike a balance between the two by doing regular product discovery and working with the team to optimise the current experience and technical infrastructure.

How to avoid this mistake: Put the customer and their problems first and foremost when prioritising your backlog. This will help you focus on building the things that add most value to the customer above 'nice to have' technical features.

10. Mistaking positive feedback for willingness to buy a product

Everyone loves a product until they have to pay for it! It's tempting to ask questions like 'How much would you pay for that' when you're doing your product discovery, but in reality, having people put a hypothetical price on a hypothetical product give you no indication of whether they will actually buy it.

How to avoid this mistake: Use a testing methodology where people have to pay something to indicate their interest in a product, for example, putting down a deposit. If you can't do this, Rob Fitzpatrick's book 'The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you' has a handy list of questions to avoid and what to ask instead:

Avoid:

  • “Do you think it’s a good idea?”
  • “Would you buy a product which did X?”
  • “How much would you pay for X?”
  • “What would your dream product do?”

Instead, try:

  • “Why do you bother [with x]?”
  • “What are the implications of that?”
  • “Talk me through the last time that happened.”
  • “Talk me through your workflow.”
  • “What else have you tried?”
  • “How are you dealing with it now?”
  • “Where does the money come from?”
  • “Who else should I talk to?”
  • “Is there anything else I should have asked?”

He also gives three handy rules for asking more effective questions:

  • Talk about their life instead of your idea
  • Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
  • Talk less and listen more

Personal product management mistakes

Sometimes simple mistakes in how you, personally, work can cause problems for the broader team building the product. It can be difficult to spot these mistakes as you often don't see the consequences of them until it's too late and you are overwhelmed.

As you read through these mistakes, think carefully about whether any of them apply to you, be honest and plan what steps you can take to stop them becoming bigger problems.

11. Not asking for help when you need it

Product management can feel like a lonely place. It can be difficult to ask for help when people expect you to have all the answers, or if you feel like it would undermine your authority. However, the consequences of not getting help when you need it can be devastating.

Generally speaking, sitting on a problem for a long time will only make it more overwhelming and difficult to solve.

How to avoid this mistake: Asking for help when you need actually shows confidence rather than weakness. If you're lucky, there will be a more experienced product person in your organization you can talk to, or an expert in the particular area of your problem (maybe a data scientist or marketer).

If there isn't anyone in the organization, you could ask someone in a product management community, or work with a product coach if you'd prefer more confidential expert advice.

12. Assuming you already have the answer

When you've been working on a product for some time, it can be easy to assume that you know the best way to solve a problem, and that your solution is best. If you're not careful, this can mean you end up missing out on a better solution to the problem.

How to avoid this mistake: When collaborating with designers and engineers, be very clear on the problem you are solving and what outcome you are aiming to achieve for the user but invite their expertise on how to solve that problem. Working together, you'll likely come up with a more effective solution than you would have done on your own.

13. Lacking knowledge of your customer and market

Theoretically-speaking, a skilled product manager should be able to move between products that serve different products and markets relatively quickly. This doesn't, however, mean that they don't need to know their customer or market. In fact, the opposite is true.

A good product manager should be able to learn about new customers and markets quickly, acquiring a deep knowledge that will help them make a product that solves the right customer problems.

How to avoid this mistake: Offer to host a brown-bag session or lunch and learn session about your customers and markets. If you don't know enough to do this, it's a clear sign you need to learn more about your customers and market.

14. Taking too much or too little personal accountability

Ultimately, the product manager is responsible for making sure a company builds the right product, one that delivers value for the customer while being aligned with the goals of the business. Oftentimes, even if it's not in the job description, that also means unblocking processes, fighting fires and pushing to make sure things get built and ships.

In this situation, product managers often fall into the trap of trying to micromanage everything, becoming a bottleneck which prevents things from actually getting things done, or they let go and the situation becomes chaotic and inefficient. Either way, things will end up getting overwhelming.

How to avoid this mistake: Set up a RACI, for the key deliverables involved in the product to show who is responsible, and accountable for each deliverable, and who needs to be consulted and informed at each stage.

15. Not prioritizing effectively

Another way to become overwhelmed is by not prioritizing effectively. Your resources as a product manager are limited so choosing what to build is one of the most important and frequent decisions you need to make.

Ineffective prioritization is often a symptom of a deeper problem with a product department. Often it's because there's no clear vision or goals to align with, or in sales-driven organizations, it can be because certain features have already been promised to customers.

How to avoid this mistake: Decide on the criteria you will use to prioritize what gets built and make them clear to your organization. If there's a gap in those criteria because your product vision and strategy are incomplete, prioritize finishing that work first. When the criteria are clear and agreed on, it makes it much easier to decide what to build and to manage stakeholders.

Product management career development mistakes

With so much pressure to deliver the right product right now, it can be easy for product managers to overlook their career development, and that can mean they end up stuck in a rut or miss out on opportunities for jobs they would love to do.

If you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve in your product management career, learning from these mistakes will help you get there. If you don't know why you're in product management, the next tip is especially relevant to you.

16. Not having a personal vision

It's really hard to do your job well when you don't know why you are doing it or what you, personally, want to achieve in your work life. Think of your personal vision like a product vision for you. Without it, it's pretty much impossible to prioritize what to do to get where you want to go in life.

If you want to develop your career in product, you need to be intentional about it and having a personal vision statement is a great place to start.

How to avoid this mistake: Here's our article on how to write a personal vision statement. Read it and have a go at writing one for yourself.

17. Staying in your comfort zone

'The comfort zone' might sound like a slightly overused cliché, but people talk about it a lot for a good reason. Sticking with 'safe' options, jobs you know you can do because you're already comfortable with them, might make your life easier for now, it won't do you any favors in the future, though.

If you find yourself stuck in a rut after years of staying in your comfort zone, it can be even more difficult to break out and build new skills. So, it makes sense to not to get into that rut in the first place.

How to avoid this mistake: Find opportunities to do things to deliberately that you wouldn't normally do. For example, if you find presentations nerve-wracking, volunteer to present at a product event or conference. Once you've done that, presenting to colleagues and clients will feel easy.

18. Over-specialising in a skill or industry

There are some industries, for example pharmaceuticals or artificial intelligence, where it takes years to build enough knowledge to hold a senior product position. For most of us, though, it's better to have a broader range of experience if we want to build a career in product. As mentioned earlier, industry knowledge is important, but it's equally valid to be able to show how quickly you can gain the knowledge you need to work in a new industry.

Even product luminaries who are famous for a particular area of the product process (discovery coaches, for example) tend to have worked in a range of roles so they understand how their specialism fits with the broader picture of product management.

Understanding the broad spectrum of activities within product management, and how they relate to different industries will put you in a strong position for building your own product team as you progress in your career.

How to avoid this mistake: Join a product management community to find out about how things are done in different industries and how different product management methodologies can be used to best effect.

19. Not building your network

It's tempting to think of networking as simply a way of getting more job opportunities, and it is useful for that. As your career progresses, though, you'll find it's useful for many more things.

Having a personal network of other product experts helps you build your own knowledge and skills, gives you  people to bounce ideas off, and means you can get help with practical challenges like recommendations for good staff for your own team.

How to avoid this mistake: Engaging with virtual communities and attending product events where you can meet other product managers, then staying in touch with the people you connect with.

20. Resting on your laurels

When you achieve something you're proud of, it's natural to want to talk about it. On top of helping you secure new jobs, talking about where you've been successful in product can provide helpful examples for others facing similar challenges.

These achievements have a limited shelf-life, though. Some people make a career of conference speaking based on that great product they shipped 10 years ago, but for most of us, whether a consultant or a full-time employee, our suitability for a position will be judged based on things we've done recently.

How to avoid this mistake: Focus on doing your current job well and make sure you can articulate how the work you are doing right now is helping the business achieve its goals. If you can't do that, revisit the earlier points on product vision and prioritisation.

In summary

After reading about all these mistakes, it might seem like product management is a real minefield! The truth is, product management is a complex job with a lot of responsibility, and chances are that you will make mistakes. Hopefully, by reading this article, you'll know what to look out for and remember – don't let it get you down. Move on. But do make sure you learn your lesson.

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Robin Zaragoza

Founder and CEO at The Product Refinery, Robin has been working in tech for 20 years and delivering product for the last 15 of those at companies of various sizes, from early stage start-ups where she was the first product manager, to large publicly traded companies where she led teams of product managers.

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