Product Managers - Embrace Ambiguity

By Walter Knitl – CEO at Praxiem

Less than a week into my role as a product manager, I received some advice which I would only fully appreciate a year or two later.  It came from a senior manager, and the conversation went something like this:

“Welcome to Product Management.  You come from R&D, right?”

“Yes, and proud of it.  It was awesome.”

“Hmm – I see.  You’re a product manager now.  The reality is – you must embrace ambiguity.”

The new reality soon appeared as I had to make the first product decisions.  Actually – it came down with a thud, brutally contrasting from development, where the work was more predictable and set on firmer ground.  Where hardware logic produced the same outputs given a set of inputs, and design trade-offs (power, complexity, performance, cost) were comfortably made thanks to great design tools and the invariability of math and physics.  Software code would also compute predictable results, although more cooks in the kitchen produced more coding “oversights” – nothing that an army of testers couldn’t mostly intercept before serving the broth.

Enter Ambiguity – from left, right and center

But now, as a product manager, new stuff was on the table – and definitely not founded on the firmness of math and physics.  For example:

  • What exactly was the overall business rationale for the product – was it for short-term financial goals or strategic for longer-term growth and company survival?
  • Conflicting analyst reports predicting market timing and size. Hmm, was that a $10B market in 2 years or $5B in three years?
  • Customers A and B wanting different non-overlapping and costly features. And, just how certain was the sales team about the resulting revenue anyway – from either account?
  • Development estimates have inherent risk and incompleteness even when diligently derived. After padding or reduction due to peripheral motivations, just what exactly was the true development cost?
  • Competitive intelligence is always good for adding uncertainty since it’s inherently incomplete and indirect. There is also plenty of room for natural or intentional mutation by the time you get it. 

Awash in such ambiguities, Product Management might seem an impossible role.  And yet, it is precisely the product manager’s job to distil the ambiguity to a level of clarity that stakeholders can commit to, to deliver net benefits to both the company and customers. 

Take a Deep Breath and Work Through It

Fortunately, all is not lost, and there are things you can do to aid the distillation – for example.

  • Develop financial models and P&Ls from the start, even with imperfect data. Play what-if scenarios and do sensitivity analyses.  Revisit often.  Excel and math are still your friends.
  • Employ up-to-date Voice of Customer or pain/benefit discovery techniques to converge on product requirements.
  • Employ Design Thinking techniques to create innovative solutions.
  • Leverage relevant stakeholders and subject matter experts (R&D, sales, finance, etc.) to test assumptions.
  • Employ an appropriate level of agile development to mitigate risks of uncertain product requirements and customer acceptance.
  • Know the internal organizational culture, including individual and group motivations.

Despite the above and other measures, a level of ambiguity will always persist – both at initial product commitment and throughout its lifecycle.  Ambiguity, like cognitive dissonance, doesn’t feel good.  Unfortunately, this feeds a human tendency to shed opposing ideas or aspects just to arrive at a stable or feel-good position.  Relegating the ignored aspects to history never to be revisited may, however, lead to product failure.  While decisions do have to be made, they should be made with cognizance of imperfection, the anticipation of possible scope and course corrections,  and, generally, the tolerance of ambiguity. 

Seed for Innovation

A product manager’s entanglement with ambiguity goes beyond just tolerance – there is also an upside.  Ambiguities in market needs and solutions provide a natural pull for their clarification.  Actively searching out and finding ambiguity will seed innovation and provide opportunities for new products and growth. 

“Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world.  Look at something and think what else it might be”
– Roger Von Oech.

Bottom Line

Sigmund Freud said that “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity”.  So, Product Manager, embrace ambiguity for your own sanity and product success.

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