The product management rollercoaster
“This product launch seems poorly managed, sorry to be blunt.” I read the Slack message a few times to be sure it was correct. A senior leader had send this to me after I made an internal announcement one week prior to a product launch. I responded professionally — thanked him for the honest feedback and dug into the reasons why he felt this way. Meanwhile, my emotions were running rampant. Shock turned to anger which dissolved into fear. Everything I worked so hard for in the past 12 months would just flop. I'd be the laughing stock of the company. My days of being a product manager were over, let alone the promotion I was hoping for. This of course, wasn't the case, but was an accurate description of how I felt in the moment and probably how we've all felt throughout our careers as product managers.
Expect sharp turns and sudden drops
The highs and lows of the product management role often feel like a rollercoaster that no one talks about. You start with the excitement of joining a new team or ideating a new product. Nervousness sets in as you realize how large of a commitment you made on the deliverables. This improves each time your team ships a feature or fixes a bug, growing your product or reducing that backlog and you feel elated. But a week later, the incidents hit and you're worried about disappointing your customers. By this stage, you already have multiple workstreams running — a series of back-to-back meetings, unread messages — and for a while you feel frustrated or even hopeless. It doesn't help when every stakeholder you've spoken with has a different perspective. The friction is real.
Then, that ongoing saga of getting approval on your launch gets the green light and you can see the finish line. Cue the pop of champagne bottles. But wait, this is when you receive a negative and critical piece of feedback and your heart sinks.
You're not alone in feeling this way. These emotions don't just make us feel like we're having a bad day, they can impair our ability to develop good relationships and make effective decisions. Many times throughout the journey from ideation to launch, we go up and down this rollercoaster and often, we don't know if we're screaming out of pure joy, fear or rage.
You just need three questions to help better understand the hills and valleys:
- What were you feeling? Recognizing what emotion you're experiencing is the best way to tackle it.
- What led you to feel this way? Reflecting on the emotion lets you understand what caused it.
- What could have been done to prevent this? Thinking through this helps you grow and improve.
It might sound simple, but often the simplest of frameworks are the most effective. Let's break that down.
Smile for the camera
We all love getting off a ride and laughing at our shocked facial expressions captured on film. Treat your emotions the same way and make sure you capture it and are fully aware of what you're really feeling. As the rollercoaster car slowly creeps up the steep incline and you feel your heart racing, identify that nervousness. Sometimes you're going too fast and you don't have time to think, but as soon as things calm down, take a moment to recognize that rush of blood you felt to your head or the sweat forming in your clenched fists.
When I was navigating the pricing structure for a new product, our vetted and approved pricing that had been shared with a renewing customer turned out to be 10x more expensive than intended. The account team was understandably upset and I was getting a flurry of urgent messages from multiple people across finance and deal desk. My initial reaction of anger would not have been productive for anyone but when I realized that I was also concerned by the impact to the renewal and the timelines of our launch, it helped me think more clearly on the best next steps.
Labeling the emotion and distinguishing what you're feeling at any point in time is an effective way of improving your wellbeing and sets you up to proactively to reflect and manage it.
Don't scream inside your heart
A theme park in Japan recently asked riders to avoid screaming on rollercoasters, but that's the exact opposite of what you need to do. Sure, keep a straight face and be professional but you really need to let it out — don't try to suppress it. We have limited capacity to store our thoughts and emotions and the negativity created by these feelings will only overwhelm us further.
How you do this is entirely up to you but I've found a combination of writing and talking to be most helpful. It allows you to methodically pinpoint the root cause behind your emotions. First, write down what you perceive to be the reasons. You might be surprised at the difference between what you thought and what you developed on paper. Then, use this as a point of discussion with your manager, coach or friend. Not everyone enjoys talking about their feelings but being able to talk about the actions or events which led to those emotions is a learning, growth and feedback opportunity.
A little while back, a senior stakeholder who had been unresponsive to my attempts at addressing some of his key concerns, called me out in a public forum stating that I had ignored him. I was frustrated and exasperated. And frankly, I was exhausted. After hashing out the details with a mentor, I felt a lot better knowing that this wasn't a reflection on my actions or performance, but was likely a cultural adjustment that needed time to sort itself out.
The simple act of writing down your feelings is enough to make you feel better but taking it further and intentionally reflecting on them yourself or with someone else is even more effective.
No loose articles on this ride
We all know the importance of having a growth mindset so it's a no brainer to examine and learn from these negative emotions. Imagine blindly going on ride after ride, each time dropping something from your pockets. Patching the hole in the pocket or zipping it up doesn't just fix the problem for the future, it also helps bring closure to a particularly gnarly situation.
A product manager I spoke with shared her learnings with me. She had been overwhelmed during the early weeks that her engineering manager was on parental leave. As time wore on, her stress levels were high and she started feeling disappointed in herself for not being able to keep up with her workload. She spent a lot of time blaming herself for not being able to keep up with the demands at work. It wasn't until she spent some time reflecting and talking with her manager, did she realize she had made an assumption. No one expected her to absorb the role of her EM. They appreciated that she had stepped up and didn't realize she was drowning. She learnt to it was great to go above and beyond, but it was equally as important to know when to ask for help.
Being a product manager is not an easy job, and wrangling with the rollercoaster of emotions can be that even more difficult. Applying the three questions into your daily routine will help alleviate some of the pressures that you experience. And the important thing to acknowledge is that you're not alone — everyone has rough days on their journey to build an incredible product for your customers.