04012 Worry: A Product Manager’s Best Friend

I am a person who worries. That has been the case for as long as I can remember. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one.

Like so much of our psychology that confounds us in modern times, worry had a vital purpose way back when: survival. Every mother who worriedly watches her toddler’s every move is using a trait that was essential when we walked in the forests and a child could get badly hurt at any moment by falling in rough terrain, eating a poisonous plant, or getting attacked by a wild animal.

Worry is the habit that kept us paranoid enough to be ready to run in case we found a bear or wolf or wildcat around the next bend.

Like many other characteristics that helped us out in a very different environment, worry can be pretty counterproductive in these days of plenty of food, general safety and homeowner’s insurance. It is easy to worry needlessly.

These ingrained traits from the past can’t be eliminated, but they can be channeled into useful avenues for today’s world. Since worry is a big part of my personality, I try to put it to productive use at work as a Product Manager.

Read on below for ideas on how to apply worry usefully to prepare your software product to thrive in tough situations that may arise.


As a Product Manager, you can use the worries described below as an incentive to make your product succeed under the worst of conditions. The key is not to stop at: “What if something bad happens?” The key is to move past that and figure out what you’ll do to protect yourself if your fears come true.

Worrying About the Competition

What’s the competition doing? Will one of them match your product feature for feature? Is one of them beefing up its sales force? What’s going to happen if the competition gets better?

It’s a pretty safe bet that, just as you are trying to improve your company’s product, your competitors are trying to improve theirs. You could call it paranoia to worry about this, but I call it hiding your head in the sand if you don’t worry.

Use that little gnawing insecurity about what the competition is doing to motivate yourself to actually track your competitors. Keep tabs on them, review their literature and web sites, regularly check their press releases, and try to make predictions about what their next move is going to be. Then take specific measures to be one step ahead of them if they make their move.

Fretting About New Technology

How are you going to keep up with new technologies? You can’t just wait around and hope that the mainframe, with its lovely green screen terminals, is going to come back into style just like platform shoes and bellbottom pants did.

As Product Manager, submit requirements to ensure that there is always a defined part of the product development effort which is devoted to the following:

  • Cataloging new technologies in the marketplace.
  • Identifying specific technologies which could be beneficial to your marketplace and product.
  • Creating simple proofs of concept and demoware to better assess which new technologies are most needed.
  • Based on the proofs of concept, clarifying the effort needed and guidelines to follow when implementing selected new technologies.

Be prepared to conquer new technologies before they conquer you.

Stressing Over Launch Dates

Will the next launch be on time? Is development proceeding as planned? Are you going to be ready with the requirements, detailed input, and feedback when the engineers need it?

It’s always good to keep your eye on the calendar and mark the weeks as you move toward the next date in the product cycle. Especially considering how easy it is for dates to slip when a partner doesn’t provide technical support, or you don’t help to resolve important questions that arise.

By looking ahead and reminding others about approaching deadlines, and taking action on problems and delays, you can make sure that your launch will be on time and as expected.

Worrying About Falling Behind

Beyond the relentless advance of technology, there’s the relentless advance of the market. This includes trends, fashions, innovative ways of doing business, and new star players.

Let your worry lead you to cast a wide net when you read information and talk to analysts, customers, and prospects. Use your worry to make certain that, as with competitors, you gather information steadily on new trends, review this information with teammates and others in the marketplace, and decide what action to take.

It’s always hard to know which trends and buzzword concepts will be enduring and which won’t last. But there are many capabilities which you can add to the product that, while not completely satisfying the trend, at least pave the way for future development if the trend turns out to be serious.

Dreading Cost Overruns

Are you doomed to ever increasing costs for delivering services and licensing product? Is your organization going to have to support ever more platforms and delivery models?

Every company has its own vulnerabilities when it comes to costs. For some, it’s support. For others, consulting. For still others, it’s development. Whatever the areas of vulnerability at your company, take steps to make steady progress, step by step, at cutting costs and keeping costs down.

It’s easy to forget about costs if they’re not an emergency. But over time, cost savings add up. If you fall behind on costs, it becomes painful, disruptive, and difficult to catch up to competitors whose reduced costs give them more money to invest or lots of leeway on the selling price.

Worrying About Not Selling Enough

How is your sales force doing? Do you have enough people? Are they getting enough training? What about the pipeline?

Between turnover and short memories, if you’re not constantly training and supporting the sales force, they may be falling behind. The other aspect of this is that each successful sale and each win/loss analysis gives your company valuable information on the best ways to qualify leads, reach prospects, and talk about the product with them. Make sure someone is noting these down and presenting these to the sales force.

Oh, I almost forgot. Chances are that “someone” will end up being you.

Still another consideration is leads. Is Marketing continuing to bring in new leads, qualify them, and hand them off? These are all things for you to focus on, especially if you’re involved in setting up or attending trade shows and other lead generation events.

Worrying About Being Forgotten

Part of the work of Marketing and PR is to get people reading and talking about your company and product. There’s nothing like the thrill of getting coverage in the press or from an analyst to see all that hard work pay off.

Often there’s a collective sigh of relief when your product is finally featured in an article, and the effort to get the word out slacks off. Are you still providing information regularly to the press and analysts?

Keep a list of ideas to pitch as articles or simply as appealing discussions to analysts who want to keep up with trends in the industry. As the Product Manager, you run across these frequently, and come up with a lot of them yourself. Be sure to regularly transmit this list to everyone in Marketing, to give them good material to attract an interview request or an offer to speak at a conference.

What If the Economy Tanks?

Right now it looks like the economy is expanding and improving. That is good news for most products, and let’s hope its good for yours.

But we have all learned that living in the 21st Century has hardly insulated us from disastrous events engineered by man – or made even worse by him. We know that floods and earthquakes will always be around. We also know that economic cycles have a life of their own that are very hard for us to influence with individual companies and products.

So it’s worth playing the pessimist every now and then and asking yourself: “What if people buy 10% less of my product this year than last?” Have some of these discussions with the management team, because chances are there are some features you can put into the product that will cut the cost of producing and supporting it, all of which would be very valuable in a downturn.

Just like the capabilities you add in order not to fall behind on today’s trends, you can at least put in simple features to get you part of the way there. If the economy sours, you’re well positioned to forge ahead with more extensive features that will help you weather the storm.

Prepared For the Worst, Hoping For the Best

Of course, if any or all of your fears don’t come true, the product is in that much better shape to compete and grow. And you as the Product Manager have helped make it that way. Nobody else has to know how sweaty your palms are.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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