How to Avoid the 10 Dysfunctions of Product Management

How to Avoid the 10 Dysfunctions of Product Management

Product management often feels paradoxical. Consider how you’d answer the following questions: 

  • Does product management deliver outcomes for the business or the customer?
  • Is product management an art or a science?
  • Does product management succeed by setting the right priorities or by planning farther ahead? 
  • Should product managers be held fully accountable for results, or do they lack the necessary authority? 

We could keep going, but the answer to all of these questions would still be the same: both! That’s the inherent complexity of product management. It’s the reason so many companies struggle to understand the role, and even the companies who “totally get it” end up struggling anyway. 

We partnered with the team at Prodify, who has worked with countless product teams as trusted product coaches and consultants over the years. As you might imagine, they’ve seen hard-working product teams struggling all the time, even under the best of conditions. 

While there are many things that can go wrong in this field, Prodify’s co-founders, Rajesh Nerlikar and Ben Foster, defined the most common dysfunctions in product management in the opening chapter of Build What Matters. The following pages aim to summarize these problems for anyone looking for a quick way to identify and solve them.

Dysfunction #1: The Hamster Wheel — a focus on output over outcomes

the hamster wheel graphic

On The Hamster Wheel, all that matters is continuing to run even though you’re not getting anywhere. Sometimes product teams are almost entirely focused on output — especially in terms of solutions and hitting deadlines — with little regard for the outcome.

When product teams and stakeholders have a specific solution in mind from the outset, there’s no time to explore the underlying need or readjust if they learn something new about what users are actually trying to accomplish. 

User research and product discovery can be time-consuming, and making adjustments based on what you learn from these activities can also impact the project plan. Teams can sometimes have the feeling that they don’t want to learn anything new because they don’t want it to negatively impact their timeline. They know they’ll only be evaluated on whether they shipped feature X on time — regardless of how it’s adopted by users.

Compare these two questions and you’ll see the difference in perspective:

  • Did you ship that feature on time? (output-oriented)
  • Did that feature deliver value to customers and grow revenue? (outcome-oriented)

What’s the use of shipping a feature on time if no customer wants or is willing to pay for it?

How to overcome this dysfunction

You can use Productboard to create an outcome-driven roadmap and emphasize what metrics your proposed product changes are expected to move (rather than just when the releases are planned), such as increasing user engagement or addressing critical user pain points, as evidenced by increased NPS or lower churn. 

Try to frame your feature ideas as brief verb-based phrases like “share data with boss” rather than specific solution ideas like “PDF export” to reinforce an outcome-focused mentality.

The shift to outcome-focused thinking doesn’t end when you’re finished building. After the release, be sure to evaluate whether the feature was successful or requires additional iterations to really solve the user’s problem. Measure whether the changes delivered the expected outcomes. You can make these types of quantitative measurements with a product analytics solution like Amplitude or Mixpanel. With Productboard, you can also run qualitative surveys with SatisMeter. 

Dysfunction #2: The Counting House — an obsession with internal metrics

the counting house graphic

In The Counting House, the focus is entirely on internal metrics with no regard for customer success. Many product teams become obsessed with internal metrics like revenue growth, monthly active users, and customer retention.

While measuring metrics is not a bad thing in and of itself, product teams can quickly get led astray when they focus on lagging indicators that are too far removed from the product (like the ones mentioned above). 

The key is to find metrics that are closely related to the product and relate to how users engage with important features so the product team has the ability to impact them directly. These metrics should be the best proxies you can come up with for how much value you’re delivering to customers. 

How to overcome this dysfunction

To ensure you never lose sight of your customer’s needs, you can create a hierarchy in Productboard that emulates how your customers would think about what you’re working on. For example, you could use a Jobs-to-be-Done hierarchy to show how your work is helping users get different jobs done.

You could also implement Prodify’s concept of customer outcome pyramids by orienting your hierarchy around metrics your customers would use to measure your product’s value, like saving them time in completing a task or hitting a personal goal.

Dysfunction #3: The Ivory Tower — A lack of customer research

the ivory tower graphic

New product managers everywhere love the (possibly apocryphal) Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 

This quote is beloved by new product managers in particular because it makes them feel like they have special insights into what their users really need that the users themselves aren’t even aware of. They believe that this “special insight” is what makes a good product manager. And if they believe this, interviewing users or reviewing feedback can feel like an admission that they don’t have that mystical insight, so they lock themselves in The Ivory Tower.

In The Ivory Tower, product teams become so removed and so far above the customers that they start thinking they know their customers better than the customers know themselves. Consequently, they never really talk to their customers, which means they risk building a product no one wants or needs.

This can also lead to mistrust between product management and other departments.

Product management feels like they’re building the right product (though they may not be), so when the product doesn’t perform well, they assume the fault lies elsewhere.

The Ivory Tower is a trap. Stay on the ground with your customers.

How to overcome this dysfunction

Productboard makes it as simple and seamless as possible for customer-facing teams to gather and share these insights. All the context they’ve collected gets routed back to Productboard and associated with the relevant feature ideas, so when it’s time to prioritize features or move forward with designing and delivering them, it’ll be on hand to inform every product decision. For example, you can:

  1. Use the Insights Board to identify trends around what users really need. Link user insights directly to feature ideas to inform prioritization, design, and delivery decisions. 
  2. Collect feedback and ideas directly from users via the Portal.
  3. Define customer segments using company data from Salesforce (or your CRM of choice), as well as product usage data from Amplitude or Mixpanel. This lets you zero in on your target segment’s most pressing needs.

Dysfunction #4: The Science Lab — optimization to the exclusion of all else

the science lab graphic

In the science lab, product teams tend to focus all of their efforts on highly measurable yet superficial improvements to their product. Collectively, these small-scale optimizations don’t do much to innovate or add customer value.

For more and more companies, optimization has become the be-all and end-all rather than a facet of a balanced product development roadmap. The assumption is that making improvements to existing solutions is the one thing that will drive results, but even effective optimizations can’t take the place of real innovation. 

When you focus too much on making incremental optimizations, you run the risk of missing out on big new opportunities or new types of value that you could deliver to users (or even a new user segment) that no existing metrics are tracking.

Sometimes you need new solutions, not optimizations.

How to overcome this dysfunction

In Productboard, you can define objectives aligned to each of these main categories of investment. These essentially become separate workstreams, which you can visualize separately on your roadmap. And the number of features worked on within each objective (or the total amount of effort associated with all those features) can be evaluated after the fact with Productboard’s allocation reports.

Dysfunction #5: The Feature Factory — an assembly line of features

the feature factory graphic

What does a feature factory build? Features.

When is a feature factory done building features? Never.

That’s the problem with being a feature factory: There’s always the next feature to build.

Product teams fall into this trap because they are led to believe by customers or internal stakeholders that if they just had this one next feature, they would close incremental deals or keep customers who might otherwise leave.

Sometimes, it works out that way, but more often than not, the team discovers that yet another feature is also needed. At some point, you need to break the cycle.

How to overcome this dysfunction

There are a few ways Productboard can help you achieve this:

  1. Use StatisMeter surveys, standalone or embedded in your product, to collect feedback on a new feature and route those insights back into Productboard.
  2. Use Productboard to send updates to everyone who requested a feature to invite them to take part in product discovery and help craft the optimal solution, or to notify them when it’s live, so they can be the first to try it and provide feedback. 
  3. Use Smart Topic detection and your Insights trends dashboard to track how feedback trends shift once a new feature is delivered. Has your intervention successfully addressed the need?

Dysfunction #6: The Business School — overuse of science and data

the business school graphic

Business school is where you go to analyze business but not actually do business. Similarly, product teams can get so wrapped up in over-analyzing everything that they avoid making tough but essential judgment calls.

Some product managers will meticulously calculate return on investment (ROI) to decide which features to pursue. With this approach, no product decisions are being made at all. Typically, it’s simply the lowest-effort improvements that end up above the cutline.

To make strategic decisions, you must consider the customers and the larger business strategy, not just mathematically calculated ROIs.

How to overcome this dysfunction

With Productboard, you can use objectives to help you prioritize and plan your roadmap. You have the ability to score features based on how well they support each objective and filter your board to surface the most strategically relevant feature ideas. This ensures you’re focusing on the features that are most likely to make an impact on your business. 

You can also create allocation reports to evaluate what your product teams are really spending their time on and whether it aligns with your overall business goals. This will help you to assign resources for growth initiatives, customer retention, and driving down debt. This report lets you track your investments across every strategic area and align your priorities against people resources.

Dysfunction #7: The Roller Coaster — fast-paced twists and turns

the roller coaster graphic

A roller coaster is all about fast thrills and wild, whiplashing movements. In product management, investors and executives like to see immediate results, and when those results don’t materialize right away, they can be tempted to pivot suddenly, creating roller coaster whiplash. 

This is demoralizing for the team because it often means that much of what they’re working on doesn’t end up seeing the light of day, and it’s also exhausting to be constantly getting up to speed on new domains (user needs, customer segments, business goals, etc.) whenever you launch into a new initiative. 

You need to be patient and provide sufficient opportunities for success. Otherwise, you’ll get false negatives, where a feature that is truly a good idea fails because there wasn’t time to properly execute it. Daisy-chained together, these false negatives result in a headache-inducing roller coaster ride for product development that ends up in exactly the same place it started.

How to overcome this dysfunction

You can define outcome-driven roadmaps in Productboard that clearly show your objectives and the timelines over which you’ll be addressing them. These are shared with all stakeholders and they’re a public way of committing to focusing on specific objectives over a given timeframe. It helps reinforce the mindset shift because the roadmap creates social accountability for actually delivering on those objectives. It makes it harder for leadership to pivot to building major new features for a big customer next week.

The Portal is another Productboard tool that allows you to share your plans with customers. By sharing your plans externally, you’re keeping your customers informed, but also creating accountability and motivation to stick to your plans.

Dysfunction #8: The Bridge to Nowhere — over-engineering for future unknowns

the bridge to nowhere graphic

Imagine if a team of engineers designed and constructed a bridge over a river to connect a city to a wilderness area where another city might someday exist. They invest a tremendous amount of time, money, and resources, and then the second city never gets built. What a waste!

That’s what happens with many product teams. They get excited about developing the infrastructure to get the product just right and then end up overengineering a product, trying to account for future needs that aren’t relevant — and may never be.

While you want to strive for building technical foundations that will last, your focus should be on validating that you’re solving the right need in the right way before making substantial investments in the underlying technology. 

How to overcome this dysfunction

In Productboard, you can provide more context to developers in a feature’s details and then easily push it all into Jira/ADO/GitHub/etc. via our two-way integration. This makes it seamless to use both systems in parallel, saving product managers time, driving product/engineering alignment, and providing valuable context to engineers. 

As Caleb Gawne, Head of Product at Rose Rocket puts it: “With Jira we get the 500-foot view. With Productboard we get the 10,000-foot view. Both are important, and Productboard’s Jira integration has been integral for keeping everything in sync.”

This context helps developers understand how the current work fits into the big picture, what the unknowns/risks/hypotheses are, and what’s coming next. They can also easily navigate back to Productboard for even more context. All this helps them avoid developing with blinders on and over-optimizing without taking big-picture product considerations, business goals, and customer needs into account.

Dysfunction #9: The Negotiating Table — trying to keep everyone happy

the negotiating table graphic

Sometimes, product meetings can turn into a negotiating table as the product manager tries to give everyone what they want.

Product managers often believe that success means keeping all of their stakeholders happy — or, at least, minimizing their unhappiness — but when teams and individuals throughout the organization collectively want more than engineering can potentially deliver, this becomes practically impossible.

It’s not your job to give everyone what they want. Your job is to give customers what they want (or maybe even just your target customer… and maybe something they didn’t even know they wanted). When you prioritize the right things for the customer, you help every team, whether those teams realize it or not.

How to overcome this dysfunction

You can easily share select views of your prioritization data and roadmaps with various groups of stakeholders in Productboard. Drivers and prioritization scores can help you show the value vs. effort tradeoff that led to your decision on whether to include something in the roadmap or not. This way, viewers of the roadmap can drill into the scoring to understand where their items stand. 

You can even curate collections of views (called “Teamspaces”) specifically for executives, GTM colleagues, etc. so they can find exactly what they need in Productboard.

Dysfunction #10: The Throne Room — whipsaw decision-making from the person in charge

the throne room graphic

Sometimes, the founder or CEO just can’t let go, and they morph from CEO to king or queen in a throne room. They make and override decisions on anything and everything, perhaps without even offering a rationale.

In these situations, the CEO typically fails to drive alignment around the product direction, so no one really understands what they’re doing or why.

It’s an impossible situation for a product team that prevents the scaling of the company beyond a single decision-maker. For the most effective product management, the product team needs the ability to call their own shots, operating as what Marty Cagan calls an “empowered product team.” 

How to overcome this dysfunction

This dysfunction is challenging because you must form a partnership with your monarch leader

Outline a clear plan of easy discovery activities and execute them together to show that you’ve considered their ideas. Gather evidence for your point of view by diligently collecting data, arming yourself with customer feedback, and being systematic about product processes. Start defining what success looks like and outline specific targets of what an idea should achieve. 

This pushes a monarch’s plan from a simple pipedream to an actual project with numbers to hit. 

Do these things and you’ll shift the culture (and executive behaviors) away from whipsaw decision-making. 

Don’t feel disillusioned if any of these dysfunctions feel familiar — we share even more tips and tricks to help you overcome them in our 10 Dysfunctions of Product Management guide. Grab your copy here. If you’re looking for a purpose-built tool that can help you with the alignment and visibility you need to truly be an influential product manager, let’s start a conversation. If you’d like to take the product coaching/consulting route, our friends at Prodify are ready for you!

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