I was scrolling through Blind and saw this spicy rant:
How is a single job so glamorized and maligned at the same time?
Curious about the paradox, I surveyed friends about their experience with PMs. I received a long, humbling list of things PMs do that land them on people’s shit list. As a former PM no longer drinking the kool-aid, I see the wisdom of their words.
Let’s cover 5 common sins and how to reverse them. By the end, you’ll see that these behaviors can trap the best of us, PM or not.
Sin #1: Overstepper
Owen has a CS degree and spends his free time in Figma. He’s the perfect PM on paper, but can end up a disaster in reality. Owen’s kryptonite is his belief that he knows best. More often than not, Owen has an inflated view of his circle of competence. He regularly oversteps into the role of engineer / designer.
This can be a strength at a tiny startup, but quickly turns into a liability as the company grows. To scale up, Owen has to learn to give suggestions instead of instructions.
- Suggestion: How did you pick X over say, Y or Z for this?
- Instruction: Y is better than X, let’s change it
Suggestions open up a dialogue for people to share their reasoning and level of conviction. This is important because once Owen starts debating, he’s driven to “win”, even over the most trivial items.
Owen could use a 2x2:
The only thing worth focusing on: decisions that are highly important to the success of a product and where people feel strongly about different things. Everything else is better off decided by the person doing the work, aka the domain expert.
It’s not worth playing Trivial Pursuit in real life.
Sin #2: Vague Scoper
If Owen is overly involved, Vivian is the opposite: she takes a vague request and throws it across the fence. The problem is that vague requests lead to different interpretations:
Instead, Vivian should be creating clarity around what to build and why, so there’s a single shared picture across every box.
- What is the real problem?
- Why is it important to customers and the business?
- How does it compare to all the other important work that’s underway?
- If it’s prioritized, what gets deprioritized?
- How will we know that the work is successful?
- Finally, what do we need to build to unlock these results?
These questions help shape a vague idea into a clear blueprint.
Sin #3: Complexifier
Charlie is poor at being decisive. His motto is “let’s add one more feature!” turning every launch into an agonizing slog. Despite his best intentions, he puts the creep in scope creep.
Charlie needs a new checklist:
- What is the worst thing that will happen if this feature is cut? If limited impact, make it a follow-up, not a launch-blocker
- What specifically needs to be done to get to the finish line?
Every week-long delay sets the team back 2% of the year. Delays are not free, and they incur an even higher cost in the currency of team morale.
Sin #4: Visionary
Victoria’s hero is… you guessed it, Steve Jobs. Her specialty is “vision” and calls her documents “state of the union” unironically. In the eyes of her team, her real gift is hoarding credit and deflecting blame.
Unlike Steve Jobs, Victoria isn’t a CEO with a legendary track record. Most of us aren’t! To earn credibility, we have to roll up our sleeves, do the work to back up opinions, invite others to revise said opinions, and ditch the pompous words.
Vision without execution is mere hallucination.
Sin #5: Deadline czar
“This is an easy task, you can do this by tomorrow, right?” Dan is cringy about deadlines. He doesn’t code or design, but is highly confident in how long something will take.
Estimates are hard! The devil is in the details, but you usually don’t encounter them until you start the work.
Dan can be more helpful by:
- Not calling something “easy” unless he’s the one doing the work
- Give people time to review and adjust scope before asking for an estimate
- If the estimate is high, ask what will take the longest and explore ways to cut scope; explore ways to de-risk potential minefields (e.g., unstable code)
What’s really going on?
These characters are not just caricatures of bad PMs. They exist inside each of us, and if we’re not careful, they can become the Jekyll to our Hyde.
While the journey is never easy, here are some principles I’ve found helpful:
- Don't act like the CEO — even if you are, the best people want to feel like they’re working for themselves
- Make your “invisible” work visible — share new context on the business and customers to help others make informed decisions
- Share your level of conviction — due to confidence theater, many of us sound more convinced than we really are
- Don’t try to win every debate — focus on topics of high importance and high conviction
- Be generous with credit — your team did more than you think, and you did less than you realize