Product Management and Fear

by nils  - May 17, 2013

My topic today is fear – how fear is the number one problem that product managers face. Well, I don’t know if it’s number one, but it’s definitely up there! A big part of our job is dealing with uncertainty – and even when things look “cut and dried,” they usually are not. This means every decision, every action, every statement we make is a creative act. And you know what happens to creative people – they get writer’s block, they get stage fright. They get “the yips.” These are all fear-based problems.

Of course, we have a lot of best practices. We know that requirements are a best practice, but we also know that a lot of successful products have been delivered without much in the way of requirements. We know that prototyping is a great way to converge on a product design, but there are lots of products that don’t have much design that do OK, and lots of beautiful products that sink like cannonballs. We know that having a well-articulated value proposition is a great best practice, but we know lots of companies that manage to do without them, at least initially.

We are creatives, therefore we have fear

And in any case, the problem with all those best practices is that they don’t eliminate the fundamental creative obstacle – whether you’re talking requirements or prototypes or value propositions or any other best practice. I’m talking about a blank space that has to be filled with something, something out of your own head. A requirement needs to be filled with words, a prototype is a design even if only made from the merest nothings. A value proposition is a terrible, daunting Mad Lib that this product is for “something” and for “someone” and it’s better than “that thing” because of “this thing.”

Not only do you not know what to write to fill those empty spaces (even if you do, it seems like you don’t, in the moment), but there’s also the fear about what happens when you do write something. Once there’s something down, then (you fear) everyone feels great about telling you how to change it, how you missed this, or should expand on that, or how could you think that was the right approach?

Are you fearful, or is it just me?

Does any of this resonate with you? Or is it just me who faces the writer’s block every day? Who worries with every word if it’s going to be wrong, and drive the company into the ground, or be roundly panned by my colleagues, or the engineers? Or have I indeed hit on a thread that, so far, hasn’t been explored much in the macho product management blogosphere? Of course, I have the same fears about this post as I do about any requirement I write – am I off my rocker, or mentally ill to be even be thinking this way (or to admit that I think this way)?

Well, I’ll leave you to consider that over the weekend while I start work on the second installment of this series – what can we do about this fear? I have some ideas, and I’ll run them by you.


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Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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