More than a decade of grousing about product management

Toxic Product Management

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How toxic and damaging product managers can hinder team dynamics, destroy trust, and deliver poor results.

In the blogosphere, you can jump around and read some truly great advice about Product Management, managing product managers, and how to progress in your skills and career. Great leaders like Teresa Torres, Saaed Kahn, Rich Mironov and so many others are almost friends to us all.

But, even with all that awesomeness out there, there are still some, ahem shitty product managers. Ones who fail to motivate their dev team. Who not just fail to motivate their dev team, but who purposely antagonize them. Ones that don’t play fair when defining priorities or have 11th hour “demands” that cause turmoil at launch time.

In short, instead of product management being part of the team, a leader, a trusted partner, it becomes a hindrance. The Dude would like to think that this was a rare occurrence, a fluke, about as common as snowflakes falling in hell, he knows it is far more common than that.

The Dude hangs out on slashdot, and occasionally cringes when he sees “engineers” bash product management, but he realizes that his experience in building team cohesion, bonding, and trust are far from universal, and that an inappropriate person in the product manager role can be far more corrosive than the cringe-worthy images portrayed in the comments of those posts.

In fact, these shitty, ill-suited product managers may be far more common that we would like to admit.

The Dude is in the middle of figuring out first-hand how badly a lousy product manager can damage a team. He has picked up a product line in his current gig, one who had a very divisive, corrosive product manager that was laissez faire with the project, provided little up-front guidance, applied a lot of heavy-handed end of development coercion, and so distrusted his team that he and the TME1 re-did the regression test before releasing a product.

As the Dude peels back the layers of the rotten onion on this one, he keeps finding more rot and decay. Ugly, and a mountain of work to rebuild the team.

How do unsuitable product managers get hired into roles where they can do real damage?  While the Dude doesn’t have concrete facts, he does have some ideas.

Hiring for technical prowess versus product management skills – Too close to the technology, not enough of the other attributes that a product manager needs for success (specifically the interpersonal skills, manage by influence, and strong verbal/written communication). The Dude likens this to the “Smartest Man in the Room” syndrome, and it leads to tension in the team that can be cut with a fork.

No leadership in product management – If product management reports to a group where there isn’t an institutional practice of product management philosophies, you’re gonna have a bad time.

While the debate about where product management reports to is ongoing, and may never be crisply defined, having it report to a revenue generation organization (a.k.a. Sales, or operations) is a worst-case scenario, and a recipe for the perversion of the role to short term fixes instead of strategic relevance.

Hiring the wrong product managers – This might seem like the same as the first bullet above, but it deserves to stand alone. By “wrong” product managers, the Dude is referring to people whose personality, style, and whole package of attributes makes them unsuitable for the role. While an “asshole” can (and often does) make for an effective salesperson, where the deal is the goal, and then shifting to the next opportunity, leaving the last smoldering wreck for someone else to deal with (those poor support staff), product management demands an engagement, a level of empathy, a skill of getting to yes, and some innate ability to compromise, and move forward. Yet, the Dude has seen far too many power-hungry product managers, destroying organizations, and leaving the wreckage for others to patch up.

The Dude is sure there are more, and perhaps you can offer some of your own observations. It is no doubt that over the 2+ decades the Dude has been in product management and marketing that immense progress has been made on the definition, and building of skills for success in the role. Countless thousands of highly motivated, engaged, and effective product managers have been minted, moving the needle far to the right.

But there still remains far too many shitty product managers, spoiling team dynamics, destroying trust, delivering garbage, and getting promoted for it. Every time the Dude reads an engineer’s screed on how useless, ineffective, and toxic their relationship with product management is, the Dude dies a little inside.

This needs to change. There is no place for toxic product managers to hide.

Written by

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