5 Product Managers Reveal the Worst Advice They Received

product manager getting advice from the team

I did not learn how to be a product manager in school. I learned on the job and from others. My experience is that we all look for opportunities to deepen our understanding of best practices. That is what ambitious product managers do when seeking out one another — looking for wisdom, guidance, and advice.

Helpful colleagues and mentors will no doubt be happy to offer advice. Much of it will be solid direction coming from a seasoned “I’ve been there” perspective.

Sometimes, however, you will find that the advisor’s perspective does not line up with where you are right now or where you are going. It is not that they are trying to steer you wrong. It is just that they might be in a different place or do not fully understand what you really need.

The key for all of us is to consider the context of the advice we seek and receive — not to blindly ask and follow the response.

So, in the spirit of learning from setbacks (and showing the value of avoiding them), we asked the Aha! Customer Success team — all former product managers — to share some of the worst product management advice they received over the last few years. 

Bad advice happens. Beware.

You should tell the development team how to do their work
“A senior executive in charge of our engineering teams gave me this advice once. It was important to him that specific members of the team showed results quickly. But the advice to instruct engineers on exactly how to do their work belied his own lack of trust in the team — these colleagues simply needed a bit of time to understand our goals fully. Instead of telling them what to do and how to do it, as the product manager I helped make those goals clear and the team quickly showed they could build elegant solutions with minimal technical direction. Product managers should not instruct on the ‘how.'” — Scott

Only show the data that makes you look good
“One of my product sponsors had a close relationship with one customer. She really needed an approval to go through that would benefit the customer and was anxious to get to work. However, there was some data that concluded that it might not be the best direction for our product. She advised de-valuing or even avoiding that research data when I presented our case. Instead, I was able to convince her why this would hurt our efforts in the long run — and everyone’s trust in us, as well.” Karen

What our first (or loudest, or largest) customer wants is gospel 
“An early-stage customer took a chance on us when our product was very greenfield and we were mostly building to request. Once our product matured, however, some of the team continued to treat this one customer like a consulting relationship and it hindered our ability to scale. In hindsight, instead of tailoring efforts to this customer we should have worked a bit harder to show them that as our product matured they would still get great solutions — even better solutions.” — Melissa

Go with whatever your executive leader wants
“I was told point blank at one company to not question a particular executive leader. But fear or blind authority should not drive product — a plan and vision should. While it was intimidating at first to propose opposing perspectives to this executive, eventually I found they welcomed the back-and-forth dialogue, and we both came to better conclusions because of it.” — Matt

Let’s build it anyway 
“This guidance came from one of our technical leaders… she really, really wanted to work with a new platform and had a cool new feature that would demonstrate what the platform could do for us. But in her excitement, she jumped to the ‘ideal’ feature for technical research — not customer benefit. We didn’t end up building that feature, but together found another feature that our customers actually wanted. In the end, it showcased how the platform she suggested would modernize our product.” — Tahlia

Did your PM spidey sense go off on some of these? Have you heard these priceless nuggets of advice before? If it did or you have, great — you are already ahead of the game.

When advice feels bad on the surface, that is because it probably is. It is your job to extract what benefit you can — if you can — and weigh the suggestions against your goals, make a decision, then move forward. 

We know you did not ask. But here’s some advice from us: Try swapping in “perspective” or “opinion” whenever you hear the word “advice” or “suggestion.” Then, make sure you understand the worldview of those sharing before taking their perspective/opinion as fact.

What is the worst product management advice you have received?

About Donna and Aha!

Donna helps product managers become heroes. She is the Sr. Manager of Customer Success at Aha! - the world’s #1 product roadmap software and has over 20 years of product and technology experience. Previously, she managed products and programs at Amazon Robotics.

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Comments

  1. Anders Granlund

    The worst advice I’ve heard was “don’t talk to sales”. Even though Product management definitely shouldn’t be led by sales, sales meets a lot of customers and hence have a lot of good market knowledge as long as you learn which sales people to trust giving you unbiased feedback.

    Reply
  2. Alexey Elisha Voloshin

    “Focus on your tasks only, don’t spend your time helping others. Let them crack the nut without your help” – this one surely was the worst advice for me.

    Reply
  3. Larry Parsons

    Product management is an art and a science; any advice that shows a bias to one over the other usually results in the “worst” bucket.

    Reply
  4. Don Park

    As a product manager, the worst piece of advice was “Don’t tell your engineers how to do their jobs”.

    In every company I worked with where engineers were given any control over anything besides the source code, the products turned out horribly from end to end — they took elegantly simple screens and turned them into complex monstrosities that only they could navigate, clear use cases into complicated scenarios based on esoteric corner cases that only they could conceive, and so on.

    This is why when my product management teams develop requirements specifications they are so comprehensive that engineers can’t mess it up even if they try. And if by some chance they do succeed, then they are held accountable for their shoddy deliverable.

    Reply
  5. Christopher Dawes

    You’re not allowed to talk to customers. You should be able to do your job by analyzing statistics.

    Which made me think at the time, “Have I been doing it wrong all these years?” I took a class taught by THE product manager of eBay to learn how to do it correctly. When I said that I wasn’t allowed to talk to customers, the entire class turned their heads towards me with their jaws agape, and the teacher replied, “You need to take your talents elsewhere. You can’t practice your craft without talking to customers.” That’s when I knew.

    Reply

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