More than a decade of grousing about product management

Product Management Types: The Bull in a China Shop

The “Bull in a China Shop” product manager is a domineering figure, believing in their exclusive problem-solving abilities and disregarding others. Unwilling to listen, they impose their vision, ignore risks, and blame others for failures. Likely unredeemable, they require careful management or removal. Their impact is significant, making intervention necessary for organizational harmony.

Back for more exposition on the various types of product managers in the wild. This time, we tackle the “Bull in a China Shop” persona. This is a product manager who is tone deaf to the on-the-ground situation in an organization, who has a superiority complex.
What does a Bull in a China Shop look like?
n.b. – I will shorten this to a Bull to save the carpal tunnel syndrome from over typing…

What is a Bull in a China Shop?

This is a product manager who has a very high sense of self-worth. They believe that they, and they alone, can solve all the issues that the organization faces.
They tend to talk over other stakeholders. They will interrupt even people above them on the org chart. They are unwilling to listen to dissenting voices, and they will in real time belittle others.
Further, while they think they are large and in charge, they completely miss how other stakeholders truly feel about them and their tenure.

  • This is someone who blithely just crashes around, alienating, and pissing off stakeholders across the organization.
  • They have a “my way or the highway” attitude, and will shout down dissenters to their preferred vision
  • They fail to account for any risks or factors that might get in the way of their path of execution
  • They refuse to take realistic timelines from key groups into account, instead dictating that they aren’t committed to success, and trimming time scales
  • They bristle when sales or finance questions the assumptions of their rosy projections in the business case.
  • They refuse to use the standard templates for key project artifacts, insisting upon recreating a near-neighbor format that is “catchier”. When asked why they didn’t use the standard, they invariably reply with “it’s too constraining” (but the data prepares/shared is proscribed)
  • They can’t help but pontificating about why their product/method/process is better, and pissing off key partners (development, sales in particular)

There is also a belief that they are always right. Perhaps this comes from an early exposure to the trope that The Product Manager is the CEO of the Product that caused their empowered entitlement mentality.
When projected volumes fail to materialize, when costs are far above the plan, when significant delays happen because early due-diligence was half-assed, do they own it?
Of course not.
It is the Macro economy, or the dev team is staffed with fucking morons who don’t work hard enough, or sales is sandbagging their offers, because “reasons”.
In short, it is never their fault.
One other key attribute of the Bull is their willingness to go toe-to-toe with their manager and indeed the whole leadership chain. In fact, they seem to relish confrontation with leadership, viewing this as a key product management prerogative to the point of being a standard operating procedure.
In short, the Bull is in fact a Bully.

Were they always this way?

The Bull is usually a product manager who has been around a while. Certainly not early in career. They have been through a few organizations, possibly in two or more similar industries.

They aren’t born, but instead are made. Perhaps they had come under the influence of a bully manager (and honestly, Product Management often lives in hierarchies that are not solely related to “product” but often in engineering, or technical marketing) who warped their priorities.

Or perhaps they were poorly managed, so they flexed their muscles and a couple of early intimidation of peers “worked” so the behavior was rewarded.

Or they have followed some influential thought leader who they revere who behaves in this manner. One that comes to mind is Steve Jobs, and all the tales of how his confrontational assholery led to his success (n.b. those depictions of his assholery are largely true, but he got away with it because he was also a once in a generation genius at reading markets and marrying them to design considerations).

Regardless of the how, it is clear that they have become a Bull, and more so a bully.

How to address the Bull?

If you’ve gotten this far, and find that you work with a Bull, or manage a Bull, you must know that there is no easy way to counter their personality and type. A Bull is rarely an early in career product manager, instead they likely were forged by a series of events.

The unfortunate situation is that by the time they become a Bull, it is unlikely that they can be redeemed. By the time that this Bull behavior is exhibited, they are far to set in their ways.

Whilst it is likely that they have some redeeming characteristics (domain knowledge, process skills, etc) it is unlikely that they will ever conform.

Either you have to be satisfied with their behavior as is, or you must manage them out.

You can’t leave them in the role unless you want to be constantly putting out the fires that they endlessly kindle in other groups. But even if you are OK with that, you will be burning product management karma on an asset that cannot and will never be improved.

If you are their leader, you must manage them out.

If you are a peer? Well, your life sucks if your leadership tolerates this behavior. You can try coaching them (and the Dude has tried) but the likelihood of that being successful is right up there with the likelihood of Jessica Alba showing up on the Dude’s doorstop to whisk him away for a wild weekend in Fiji. (so close to zero as to be immeasurable)

If you are a Bull? Recognize that you are viewed as an asshole by all within the organization and try to change. Perhaps sales management is better for you (there being a bully can be an asset.)

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A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

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Written by pmdude