When you don’t know how to fix your product

Conquering uncertainty in product management

Braden Kowitz,Yellow Squiggle
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This article was written for "The Path to Product Excellence", an eBook from our good friends at productboard.

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When you’re a product leader, people look to you for answers. Why is the churn rate high? Why is feature X not being used? How do we get revenue up? And most importantly, what are we going to do to fix it all?

I hate it when I don’t have good answers to questions like this. It touches a deep dark fear: maybe I’m not good at my job. As someone trusted with product decisions, shouldn’t I have all the answers? Aren’t people expecting me to have all the answers?

I know that’s crazy. Nobody has all the answers. But when I’m feeling uncertain, it’s easy to put my guard up. Instead of saying “I don’t know,” I’ll dismiss a question as not important. Worse, when I’m uncertain, I may stop asking my own questions about what could be better. This all just leads to worse product decisions.

Fortunately, I know I’m not alone. I’ve worked with dozens of startups and seen product managers struggle with the same issues. They might not share their deep dark fears with me, but the symptoms are recognizable enough.

Product leaders with more assertive personalities tend to deal with uncertainty by pretending they know everything. They’ll dictate what to build, even though they don’t have a strong rationale or supporting data. In the short term, this looks good by creating lots of activity. But it often doesn’t end well. Poorly designed features don’t have a good chance of working. And asking a team to build poorly planned features erodes trust in leadership.

Other product leaders may go the opposite direction: they disengage from decisions. This is my failure mode. When I’m uncertain, I’m more likely to withdraw and let each team build whatever their heart desires. This may foster experimentation, but it doesn’t create focus and momentum. The product may improve, but it also becomes fragmented and incoherent.

If you work with a product leader who’s exhibiting these behaviors, please cut them some slack. It’s a hard job. What you observe as arrogance or avoidance is more likely a way of dealing with feelings of fear and uncertainty.

The good news for product leaders is that there is a path out of uncertainty. I feel overwhelmed with uncertainty at least once a year, so I’ve gotten somewhat good at getting myself out of the rut. Here are the steps I take:

1. Breathe. You’re not alone.

Many of us have the mistaken notion that a great product leader is some genius character who dictates solutions to the rest of the team. It’s unfortunate that this archetype has captured our imagination because it just doesn't work. Dictators don’t make good decisions, and no one likes working with them either. But what makes this image of a product leader particularly harmful is that it suggests we must have all the answers.

If you get caught up thinking this way, remember that you’re not alone. You have a whole team that’s excited solve product challenges with you.

It’s not your job to have the correct solution. It is your job to lead the team to find a solution. That may seem like a minor distinction, but it makes all the difference.

2. Face the problem, together.

My team collectively knows more about product problems than I could ever know alone. So I start by talking to everyone I can: Leadership, Sales, Customer Success, User Research, etc. I dive into the analytics. I’ll even ask friends outside the company for advice. Then I start making a big list of things that aren’t working well.

If you do this too, you’ll notice that people have very different views of what the problem is, which can be frustrating at first. But try not to think about these different viewpoints as sides of an argument. Instead, it’s helpful to remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One man thinks he’s touching a tree trunk, while another thinks he’s holding a snake. Don’t get sucked into an argument about whether to fix one problem or the other. At this point, only try to see the elephant.

I like to group the problems I find into a few themes and share the whole thing with my team. It might feel scary to admit what’s broken but it can be a huge help. Showing teammates that you understand what's broken builds trust, and framing product challenges as broader themes helps teammates suggest better solutions.

3. Imagine the future.

It’s totally okay if you don’t have a genius solution to the problems you’ve gathered. More likely, you’ll be feeling in the dumps because you’ve surfaced all the major flaws in your product.

It’s at this stage where I feel most overwhelmed. A dark voice in my head nags, “Everything is broken! You’re screwed!”

I find my way out of this darkness by focusing on possibility. I’ll ask myself, “If we solved this problem, what would that mean for this company? It would be huge!” That’s the spark of light that kicks me into a creative mindset where I can find my way forward.

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By this point, I usually feel about a hundred times better. I’ve remembered that there’s a whole team to support me, I’ve enlisted teammates to help understand what’s broken, and I can imagine several paths ahead.

So the next time you’re feeling stuck, don’t let your worst instincts control you. Get some perspective, either with these steps or with whatever works for you. It’s always okay to say, “I don’t know what we should do next.” The sooner we get comfortable with that phrase, the sooner we can get unstuck and on the road to a successful product.

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When you don’t know how to fix your product
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