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Product Management Is Not Guessing


Jump off the cliff and build the plane on the way down. You may have heard this phrase or something similar. The sentiment behind it makes sense. You want to figure things out as you go. You want to move fast. But you have to do all this while backing it with qualitative or quantitative data (or both if you're lucky). Your plane will fall right out of the sky if you base your decisions entirely on assumptions.

When I was starting my product management journey, I wasn't even a product manager. I was working at a small startup nine years ago doing customer support and account management. We lumped it together because the software was almost entirely self-serve with some product demos to help close inbound sales leads. Through this experience, I developed a deep knowledge of the product and our customers. This led to me being pulled into conversations with engineering as they were building or refining features.

"Should we add this button?"

"Which layout do you think is better?"

"This feature or that feature?"

They trusted me, and that felt good. However, those questions were based on the belief that because of my product knowledge and customer contact, I could easily answer them. If I did (and sometimes I did), I would be guessing. I would be extrapolating my existing conversations and applying that knowledge to engineering decisions.

Wait, that actually sounds a little like product management, doesn't it?

It does, and it is. The difference, though, is in the mechanism for testing assumptions. If you make a decision based on an assumption, you're making a bet. But you have to test that bet. You have to be willing to validate that bet through customer research. When people ask you for decisions on the spot, they often expect you to be the expert and the voice of the customer. It's a good position to be in, but it can also be a trap.

If you find yourself going with your gut too often, you might be guessing. And product management is not guessing. Product management is research. It's empathy and analysis. You will develop some gut feels, and you should leverage those for quick wins. But if you are operating entirely from your past experience, you can miss the changing tastes of the market. You can miss signals that would help you build better products and features.