Ryan Frederick | October 6th, 2021
There is a lot of noise around a product. Customers generate noise. The product team itself makes noise. Others in the company can inject noise. Competitors can cause noise. Investors and alike can also be noise generators.
Noise is created around a product because it is easy for people to have an opinion about what it should do, and how it should do it. Because of this, product managers have the responsibility to serve as noise controllers and filters.
Do you know why great product managers are so rare and so valuable? Oh, and why they are exhausted at the end of every day? A great product manager is serving the same role as a filter in a furnace, a vacuum cleaner, and a dryer. Yep, you read that right. And it’s true. Product managers are the filters for their products. Just like how a furnace, vacuum, or dryer won’t perform at its best if it’s clogged up, neither can a product or product team.
Filtering, assessing, and controlling noise around a product isn’t easy. In fact, it is incredibly difficult. The customer is always right, right? What sales is requesting the product to do has to lead to more revenue since sales is asking for it, right? Company leadership who wants to raise a product’s price to have higher margins and better recurring revenue aren’t wrong in wanting to do it, right? A competitor that is spouting things about their product and yours that just aren’t true is easy to ignore, right? One of the greatest challenges for product managers is to filter out all of this noise and to figure out what is in the best interest of the product, the users, and the company. The center of the Venn diagram, where the best interest of the product, the users, and the company intersects, is the sanctum product managers are attempting to protect as they are filtering noise.
I wrote previously about product managers being relationship managers, and inside of every relationship, even the best of relationships, is some noise. Dealing with the noise is paramount to managing relationships effectively, because in most cases the customer, marketing person, company leader, etc. don’t believe they are generating noise. They feel validated in what they are saying, sharing, and doing. They are working towards what they believe best serves their interest, which in turn should serve everyone else’s best interest, as well as that of the product. They believe they are sharing a perspective that is valuable and constructive. The gap between the noise created by people around a product and their belief that they are providing valuable feedback is a result of them not having the holistic view of a product that the product manager does. Therefore, product managers must provide the noise filtration.
A product manager’s noise filtration is an empathetic education process. The best product managers help others understand why and how feedback will be assessed and filtered to best align with the objectives for the product, users, and the company. Great product managers first empathize with someone creating noise and second, they educate the person on how suggestions and feedback around the product are being evaluated. Product managers who struggle to manage noise often do so because they let their ego interfere with their ability to filter effectively. Instead of understanding someone’s perspective and educating them on the evaluation process, they challenge their perspective and then fight to defend a different one, which only creates more noise and conflict. The most successful product managers have less interest in being right, and more interest in doing what’s right for the product.
It is easy to empathize with and to educate noise makers around a product? No, and that is why great product managers stand out. They stand out because they know the value of not disregarding someone for sharing their perspective, and that the only way to prevent that person from generating more noise in the future is to help them understand how product feedback is evaluated and how product decisions are made. Product managers need to believe that someone making noise around a product is doing so because they are unaware of how product decisions are being made. Product managers who immediately jump to a defensive mindset and believe that these noise generators are somehow challenging their knowledge and control of a product will cause the noise generator to keep making noise. The best product managers educate people, they don’t confront them.
One of these noise generating entities referenced above is competitors. Clearly a product manager doesn’t have the ability to empathize with and educate a competitor in a way that will stop them from generating noise around the product manager’s product. So, what is a product manager to do when noise is being generated by entities the product manager has little to no influence on? Should the product manager get with marketing and counterpunch a competitor’s noise? Should they reevaluate pricing to silence some of the noise through a pricing strategy that changes the conversation? Maybe, but the best thing a product manager can do is to simply focus on and educate their sphere of influence around a product.
There are essentially two types of noise generators around a product – negative and positive. Negative noise makers can be the competition and the media. Although the media can also be positive and should remain neutral, this isn’t always the case. Positive noise makers are people that want to see the product succeed like customers, team members, investors, partners, and board members. It is important for a product manager to understand the base position of a noise maker because a product manager’s handling of noise should vary accordingly. With the outsider (negative) and insider (positive) baselines established, it doesn’t mean that negative, outside noise is harder to deal with than inside, supposedly positive, noise is. In fact, the opposite is often true.
Negative noise from the outside is predictable, and product managers have less control over it happening and less ability to do anything about it. “Haters gonna’ hate.” Inside noise from people that are supposed to be supportive and positive influences around a product are much more challenging for product managers to handle. This is because the agenda of outside negative noise is to be expected. The agendas of insider noise that is supposed to be positive is much harder for product managers to contend with. Why is an investor trying to enforce their will on the product? Why is someone on the product team digging their heels and making it difficult for the product to advance? Why is a company leader insisting on a different vision and product roadmap than the product manager and team are endorsing? The investor, team member, and company leader all have their own reasons for creating noise around a product that helps their individual cause but this might detract from what is in the product’s best interest. Insider noise is significantly more challenging for a product manager to deal with, because the intent behind the noise is often veiled behind a cloak that disguises the person’s real motivations. Product managers not only have to filter internal noise, but also then have to seek to understand the drivers behind it. Understanding what is driving someone internally to create noise is crucial to prevent, or at least to reduce, the amount of noise created.
The ability for product managers to filter, process, and understand product noise is a key evolution for the role. Product managers who just get frustrated with dealing with noise haven’t yet acknowledged it is part of the craft. No product is free of noise, and the best product managers accept it and figure out how to manage it. Product managers who are excelling are quick to identify and filter noise, often doing so in a manner so that the rest of team is insulated from it. This is also why product managers need an empathetic leader, one who understands the product manager’s role in managing and reducing noise. Product managers don’t need breaks from the ins and outs of tactical product management as much as they need breaks from the relationship and noise management. Great product management leaders know and respect this.
As with most things professionally and personally, it comes down to the people involved. People can make things go swimmingly, and people can make things complicated. Having the right product manager, one who effectively filters out noise, will lead to the success of both the product team and the product.