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Are product managers too negative?

The Emperor’s new clothes

A vain Emperor hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid." The Emperor's ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all.

Sound familiar?

no (square) Product managers often have the challenge to speak the truth, particularly to those in power—to execs and developers and sales people. “No, we cannot deliver that capability with today’s technology.” “No, we cannot add this idea to the top of the backlog; it has to be prioritized.” “No, we are focused on the market, not the requirements of a single customer.”

A new CMO called together the product management team and said, “Tell me what keeps you up at night. What barriers are blocking our success?” Based on the ensuing discussion, the CMO reported to the leadership team “those product managers are really negative!”


Ask a negative question, get a negative answer. If you want sunshine and unicorns, tell your team that and they’ll comply. But then, you’ll never know what’s really happening.

Don’t you want to know? (I have the finest fabric I’d like to show you…)

A colleague was fired and it came as a complete surprise. His last review was excellent. And then one day, boom! “you’re outa here. You’re just too negative!”

One of the characteristics of a good manager is transparency. A bad review should never come as a surprise to the employee. And certainly an employee should never being fired without prior warning. (Actually, aren’t there laws to this effect?)

But I’ve digressed from my point.

What to do

Here are some tips for communicating with executives, particularly when what you have to say could be construed as being negative.

Use facts. Customer and market research provide you the facts that support your message. Facts direct the executive team’s hurt feelings on the data instead of onto you. [tweet this]

Use stories. Customer anecdotes and quotes can convey your customers’ frustration and deflects the “kill the messenger” mindset. After all, it’s not you but the customers who are complaining.

But in fairness, also take a moment to consider if maybe you really are negative. Do you tend to see the glass as half full? Do you report problems as if there is no solution? Are you a complainer? Have a heart-to-heart with your family and colleagues—and don’t expect sunshine and unicorns.

Product managers are hired to find and solve market problems. And while they’re at it, they find company problems too. Help your company find a solution… using market facts to convey your message.

What other tips or stories can you share? Add your comments below.

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