When Product Management Goes Wrong – Part 6 – Frozen

In part 1 of this series, we looked at the underminer product manager. In part 2 we talked about the dinosaur. In part 3, we looked at the erratic driver. In part 4, we looked at the micromanager. In part 5, we discussed the Dread Pirate Roberts. In this post, we will explore the frozen product manager.

I thought I had finished this series with my last post, but I realized there was an obvious omission, so I am adding this post to the series. Originally this post was all about fear, but I realized that wasn’t accurate. Fear is a driver of the frozen product manager, but not the only one.

The frozen product manager delays decisions and derails product development due to their own fears, insecurities, biases, and their reaction to political dynamics.

They miss opportunity windows in the market due to delayed decisions, or not making decisions at all.

The Frozen Product Manager:

  • Procrastinates excessively
  • Doesn’t make product decisions until the last minute, or is forced to.
  • Hijacks strategic work and brainstorming in favour of mundane project tasks and busy work.
  • Allows problems to fester until they become damaging to the product and team.
  • Uses processes, tools and other forms of busy work to redirect and consume productive efforts that would be put towards improving the product and innovating.
  • Attacks and thwarts visionary product or feature planning. To excuse their behaviour, they cite scope management, budget, technology or other limitations.
  • Is resistant of any change, no matter how minor.
  • Claims to be in favour of innovation, yet secretly undermines any efforts to do something new and creative.
  • Refuses to acknowledge the elephant(s) in the room. ie. Ignores obvious problems or issues that require attention.
  • Lashes out at suggestions for improvement, new technology observations or at creative solution ideas. This can be overt or covert.
  • Undermines efforts to improve, innovate or grow the product
  • Also undermines the people who point out and try to solve problems that involve hard work, innovation and difficult decisions. Overtly by arguing and escalating conflict, or covertly through endless arguments and discussions that derail any real progress or decision making.
  • Attacks people who highlight any problems on the project (ie. kills the messenger) and demands that any problem brought forward must be accompanied by a solution.

Fear

Fear is normal for a product manager, but  dysfunction sets in when we have unhealthy reactions to it. When fear prevents you from moving forward with new ideas that will improve the product and the experience of your users, then it is getting in the way.  Fear can cause you to freeze up and stagnate, or it can be channelled into something positive.

No matter how confident you are and well informed you are in your decisions, things can go wrong. Fear can be a good indicator that you are on the right path because you are out of your comfort zone, and you are taking a risk with the product. For example, needing to pivot a marketing campaign due to current events can have some healthy fear:

“Oh no! Is our messaging wrong for the current state of the market, or due to world events?”

That is reasonable fear that the direction you are going is the wrong one, and you fear the results of being perceived to be tone deaf. A healthy and productive way to deal with this fear is to research and check before proceeding, and adapt as needed. An unhealthy reaction is to freeze up and scuttle the new direction altogether. (Unless it is so inappropriate it needs to go.)

You may also have fear about changing direction quickly to adapt. “What will the marketing people think? Will they agree or will they see me as indecisive or over reacting?” Once you set that fear aside, you may also have some fear about whether they have availability to adjust to better suit the product and environment.

Finally, once you have pivoted to better match the current environment, there will be fear about that new campaign and whether it will work or flop.

This is all normal. Most times, when you confront that initial fear and adapt, your product is now placed to reflect the current reality, even if your campaign isn’t perfect. Your competitors who do not adapt are left behind and need to play catch up.

This scenario plays out in various ways in a product, from marketing, feature development, technology choice and others. When a force causes you to worry about what you are doing, and you are able to pivot and adapt, there will be fear. Addressing the fear will help improve your product. Being ruled by the fear will have negative effects. When you are afraid to deal with problems or opportunities, the product and the team will suffer.

Personality and habits

Some of us are conflict averse, others thrive on it. However, too much in one direction or the other can cause frozen outcomes.

Some of us are decisive, while others indecisive. Making decisions too quickly without enough information can put a product on the wrong trajectory, while indecision leads to paralysis.

Some of us are procrastinators, while others get things done efficiently. Sometimes procrastination pays off when a solution arrives due to time researching and thinking, but too much can lead to zero productivity.

It’s important to be aware of what your preferences and habits are, and to counter them when they become an impediment. Each of us has a mix of skills and preferences, and while it can be uncomfortable, it is important to have personal tactics to counter them when they get in our way. Experience will help you learn and grow as a person, and to know when to indulge or reject what is comfortable or habitual.

Biases and stereotypes

Our own biases and negative beliefs can also cause frozen behaviour. A product manager may dislike certain technologies and have deeply held beliefs that are based on hearsay or folklore. I worked with a product manager who hated JavaScript and did everything they could to prevent the technical team from using any JavaScript in their projects. When pressed for reasons, they would just repeat flimsy arguments that they had read online that were often outdated, or bordered on conspiracy theories. When pressed and shown that their negative opinions were unfounded, they would respond with anger, shutting down the debate.

They may stereotype other people and groups, such as marketing being out of touch with technical needs, or the technical team being clueless about user experience. If communication with others
is driven by stereotypes, it will create tension and destroy cross functional collaboration.

Idealistic philosophies

A lot of people love to subscribe to a particular management approach or philosophy. Frozen managers can be impacted by a blind, zealous adherence to one approach that they will stick to no matter what the outcome. Management styles that focus on building consensus and democratic team decisions can be especially susceptible to frozen behavior.

Product decisions are difficult, and it is extremely hard to get consensus between individuals and teams. I have to make decisions that anger one group or another, because the big picture for the product needs to win out.

When I start working with a new team, I tell different groups that at some point during the project, their group will be upset with me. In fact, when it seems I am getting along well with one group, another is likely upset because of a decision I had to make. Sometimes, everyone is mad at me.

When working with a new startup,  I explained this to marketing, sales, business stakeholders and the technical team. For whatever reason, when I was resolving conflict between marketing and the technical team, I tended to side with marketing. The techies were upset, but they were good natured and understood that the decisions helped move the project forward. One day though, the dev manager came to me with a serious problem related to a technical decision. I understood immediately that they needed to change course, but the business stakeholders, marketing and sales, and others were against it. They felt that the tech team were making a capricious decision towards new and shiny tech because they had already settled on a different solution.

We had an emergency meeting, and I sided with the tech team. While it seemed like a distraction, it was necessary due to unforeseen tech limitations that had emerged. It would add an extra couple of weeks to the schedule, but it meant we could actually ship with critical features. The tech team was shocked, and came to talk to me afterwards, thanking me. I reminded them that I had told them that some days they would be angry, other days they would be happy with my decisions. They laughed, and we gained mutual trust.

It isn’t fun to have people and groups be upset with you. However, it is part of the role as a product manager to find a path through competing views on how to move forward. A lot of my work is to step in to help companies when the product manager role is frozen with indecision. Consensus builders struggle when there isn’t a compromise, such as the tech issue described above. You can’t go half way with a tech change mid-project. In that case, the conflict averse product manager will side with the most politically powerful. That might be good for self preservation in an organization, at least in the short term, but it means the product itself will suffer.

The idealism of everyone getting along and building consensus can be a difficult one to maintain, especially when there are time and market pressures. Making a decision and disappointing some for the good of the whole is difficult, but necessary at times.

Politics

Often, there are political forces at play, and a product manager may be pressured by others in the organization who wield influence and power over them in various ways. In some cases, the product manager perceives pressure and undue influence when there is none. Their insecurities get the best of them and they start imagining how other groups would prefer they behave, rather than the obvious and positive value creation activities.

“But our team doesn’t have politics” people say. That is false. When an individual starts a project and transitions from a sole hustler to growing a team, the politics start as soon as you add a second person. The team of two may appear to be in complete agreement, even when there is conflict and decisions are finally agreed to, but add a third person and the rough edges appear immediately.

It is tough and scary to go against the politically powerful. If you can demonstrate the good of the product, and do it with respect and kindness, you will usually win them over. If you don’t, their own ego and insecurities will prevent product success. If they force you out, it was meant to be because you are attached to a losing proposition.

Intimidated by Others

When you’re good at something technical, it requires a lot of effort and a certain amount of special skills. Techies are often elevated by others who lack those skills, and to be honest, it can feel good to be put on a pedestal. It can be easy for our egos to get out of control when people compliment us all the time, and we are known for solving certain kinds of problems better than those around us. The problem with too much of this is that it gets comfortable and we start to let it get to our heads. An unfortunate outcome is to feel superior to others, and then be excessively threatened when someone else comes along who can do some things better than you can.

Technical teams can be full of people who are intimidated by others who have different perspectives, different skills, and different strengths and weaknesses. Often this fear results in mediocre teams full of people who are all the same. (Sadly, tech teams of white males is extremely common in North America at the time of writing this.) Beyond the visible similarities, those with political power often hire people who have the same level or lesser skills than they do. That way they never feel uncomfortable, and are reinforcing their position and ego. Sadly, this fear always results in an inferior product (not to mention the organizational and societal problems that are created and reinforced. Diversity of people, skills, ideas and strengths always results in better products, even though it can be scary when you aren’t the smartest person in the room anymore.

What do you do instead?

  • Try to make a decision, any decision, when you are scared and frozen. A poor decision is much better than no decision.
  • Ignore your biases and stereotypes. Give people and groups the chance to meet or exceed expectations. If you treat them a particular way and expect them to behave in a particular way, they will likely meet those expectations, be they poor or good.
  • Have courage and follow your instincts. You can always fix a poor decision if you are honest and forthright. You can’t fix something you hide from everyone, and you can’t fix being frozen and doing nothing. The market and your customers will move on.
  • Be careful of letting the political environment dictate your product decisions. When the product suffers, the people you are sucking up to politically will lose respect for you, and your credibility will suffer.
  • Get advice from key, trusted people. You can’t know everything, and their perspectives are valuable when informing you. Once in a while, the ideal solution will appear from another source.
  • Build a team of people who are better at you at things. Don’t be intimidated because they excel in areas you are weaker at, be drawn to them and use their expertise and ideas to help the team and product succeed.
  • Research, research, research. Stay on top of market forces, customer needs, technology solutions and current events. If you get stuck in your ways and always do the same thing because it feels safe, you will miss out and your product will suffer.
  • Do the opposite of what feels comfortable. When you are frozen with indecision, look at the source of your feelings. What do you wish was different to make things easier? How would you react if things were ideal? Now, look at how this situation is preventing you from doing what is comfortable, and do the opposite of what feels comfortable. For example, if you always push for consensus no matter how long it takes, but you re unable to get agreement from others, make a snap decision to break the logjam.

Frozen Startup Founders

One of the most common frozen situations I run into is with startups that don’t have an official product manager. The founder tends to play that role in addition to everything else they do. This feels natural because the company exists because they had a great software idea. They were able to identify the need, spin the right narrative about it, sell it to investors and potential customers, and attract and motivate a technical team around them to deliver.

However, they have a lot riding on success or failure of the project. They have huge financial interests and may be so extended financially that they face personal financial ruin if the project fails. There are also reputation and personal dynamics at play as well.

Startup founders fear the failure of their product and their personal ramifications so much that they are extremely motivated to succeed. To investors, this is ideal. They feel that this person is so motivated, they will succeed no matter what. Sadly, this is often a false impression. The fear can paralyze the person when it comes to making decisions about the product that they are uncomfortable with.

Startup founders that get frozen are often gifted at finding a market niche, addressing that with a product idea, raising money and assembling a team. However, those skills are not necessarily transferable to product management. Here is why:

  • They may not be up on the latest market trends or recent changes with regards to technology or preferences of people they aren’t used to dealing with. (eg. older founders refusing to learn about  younger people and social media marketing effectiveness)
  • They may insist on using technology that they are familiar with, but it might be outdated or unsuited to the current environment. (eg. refusing to create a mobile app for their solution because they can access a website on any device.)
  • They may be held hostage by the technical team. It is incredibly hard to attract tech talent to startups. Startups are risky and don’t pay very much, so it is tempting to make sacrifices to provide them with alternatives. They may grant people with senior titles and roles they don’t have the experience for. They might attract desperate people who have mediocre tech skills who are willing to take on the risk and lower pay. They may supplement pay by providing stock in the company, but that is dangerous because it provides techies with a huge amount of power, especially if they are voting shares.
  • They may be held hostage by investors, many of whom are not current with market, tech and other forces, and will have undue influence on the company because they want to see a return on investment.
  • They may have a massive ego that prevents them from learning about new things, listening to others, and respecting talent and skills that they lack.

When startup founders are feeling extreme fear, they often do the following:

  • Double down on what they have already been doing, even though it isn’t working. (The market is rejecting their idea, or the technology isn’t well suited at the time, etc.)
  • Make a desperate move. When this comes from a place of extreme fear, it is usually foolhardy. I have seen startup founders fire people unnecessarily, pull funding from successful efforts, take out massive personal loans, lie, cheat and steal.

Contrary to what pop culture likes to portray and business folklore loves to perpetuate, desperate last minute moves in the face of certain failure do not tend to pay off. Instead, calm, rational, informed decisions can help save the day.

One of the most difficult parts of my job is helping frozen founders. Their fear of failing can be so paralyzing and difficult, and requires them to not only cope with their startup and all of those pressures, but to work on trust and personal growth.

A good product manager will provide sober second view of the founder’s dream, while owning that dream of a successful product themselves. Since they don’t have the weight of the world on their shoulders, they can move forward with a lot less fear than the founder is usually capable of.

Product managers are either vital in helping address the paralyzing fear that presents product success, or they contribute to it and doom the product to mediocrity or even failure. 

As the song says, sometimes the best thing you can do when you and your product is frozen is to let it go.

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