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6 Common Pitfalls Product Managers Should Avoid

Every product manager’s career journey is marked by trial and error; especially the early years. Making mistakes is natural – even expected. Sometimes, poor boundaries, rushed decision-making, and lack of communciation are the root causes of our mistakes. But what if you could avoid some of these pitfalls entirely? With proper organization, and a little self-reflection, it’s totally possible.

In this article, I’ll explore the six most common mistakes product managers make early in their careers. I’ll also offer practical advice on how to dodge each pitfall, based on how we structure team workflows and development processes at Railsware. Let’s start.

1. Poorly-coordinated teamwork

A McKinsey & Co. study found that product management is a leading driver of developer velocity and business performance. The catch? You don’t get these results simply by introducing agile practices and redefining strategies. A good product leader is a uniting force. You must be hands-on, empathetic, and able to synchronize efforts across product functions.

As someone who’s just starting in this field, you might think that your role is to be a ‘ringleader’ of sorts – someone who can interpret product needs, create and distribute tasks, and ensure they get completed on time.

But this linear approach rarely works. In my experience, strict team/organizational hierarchies only create unnecessary blockers for product specialists.

The same goes when you adopt the role of team mediator. Your job isn’t to relay information between functions (for example, asking product design for UX guidelines that the engineering team is missing). This only creates delays in the development pipeline and undermines teamwork.

How to avoid this mistake

Even if you work in an organization that enforces hierarchy, you can still create a collaborative team environment. Set up weekly or bi-monthly syncs for different activities e.g. sprint retros, backlog refinement, team inputs review. The goal isn’t to cram people’s calendars with useless meetings, but to create targeted opportunities for specialists to share ideas and get clarity on product direction.

Polish your communication skills to prevent misunderstandings and build positive relationships with your teammates and stakeholders. Julia, our TitanApps Product Lead, previously shared her tried-and-tested tips for effective communication.

2. Relying on intuition over fact

Decision-making is a huge part of a product manager’s job. From choosing which features make it into the next iteration, to picking a new tool for customer feedback collection, you’ll make decisions all the time – some big, some small.

It’s easy to get fatigued and allow your gut instinct to take over. Especially when you have lots of urgent decisions to make and very little data on hand.

But it’s a slippery slope. CB Insights research shows that 35% of products fail due to no market need – failures that could be prevented with proper idea validation and product testing. Essentially, going with your gut (e.g. when adding new features to the roadmap, or picking the tech stack for a new project) can derail product success and destabilize the team.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t rely on data without forming an assumption first. This can lead you to draw incorrect conclusions from raw data.

How to avoid this mistake

Create repeatable, data-driven decision-making processes.

Setting product metrics and creating product dashboards is a good place to start. You should block time in your calendar to review analytics each day/week, and refer to your dashboards (product funnel, sales, web analytics) whenever you need to make product-centric decisions.

Don’t forget to formulate a hypothesis before assessing data. This will help you shape better decisions and make the whole process more transparent. Here’s a short guide on how to create and test product hypotheses.

One more thing: context matters. Not all decisions require a data deep dive; sometimes, your intuition is enough. Gaining experience, experimenting, and deepening your domain knowledge helps sharpen your intuition over time.

3. Striving for perfection in early product development

Perfection is the enemy of progress. This is a well-worn phrase, but it couldn’t ring more true in the product development world. If you’re trying to build a perfect product from the very start, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Here’s why.

  1. Product evolution is unpredictable. It’s hard to define what ‘perfection’ looks like, even in a more mature version of the product, because customer needs, market trends, and business priorities are constantly shifting.
  2. Delaying product launch only benefits your competitors. In many cases, the longer you spend prototyping or tweaking your initial product, the harder it will be to establish a market presence. And you’ll have wasted precious time and money in the process.
  3. Risk-taking is essential. Fine-tuning the early version of your product won’t help you achieve long-term goals. Peter Sellis (Snap Inc’s first product manager), calls this ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.’ “Losing sight of the long-term, big-picture goals and just optimizing what you have means you’ll never try anything radical…The deck will look great but the ship will have sunk.”

How to avoid this mistake

Start with an MVP that solves customer problems, and then evolve based on feedback. Understand that the early renditions of your product only need to be minimally functional and easy for users to navigate.

Everything else – proper onboarding flow, eye-catching designs, smooth UX – can wait for later iterations. Validate your core idea first, and then turn your attention back to improving the user experience.

4. Failing to recognize your own biases

Biased product thinking and decision-making can sabotage both products and careers (even well-established ones). Here are some of the most common biases product managers hold:

Among all, I’d consider confirmation bias to be the most dangerous, because it often flies under the radar.

For example, let’s say you have an idea for a new feature that you predict will have a big impact on customer retention. You want to get your team and key stakeholders on board, but first, you need more proof.

So, you search for customer requests, competitor analyses, and market trends that back up your opinion, skipping over evidence (e.g. surveys, recent CustDev interviews) that suggests your idea is weak.

Although unintentional, we often end up building a feature that we want, rather than what our customers want.

How to avoid this mistake

Become a true advocate for your customers. Deepen your understanding of their wants, needs, and pain points by running CustDev interviews and paying close attention to requests, complaints, and new market research. Strive to see a problem from the customer’s perspective. When navigating internal disagreements, it’s also helpful to put yourself in team members’ shoes. Good product leaders don’t assume that everyone thinks like them; instead, they question their own motives and actively seek the opinions of others.

On a similar note, don’t discount the impact other functions (e.g. marketing) can have on product growth, just because you don’t understand how they work. Invest in continuous, cross-functional education and always keep an open mind.

5. Chasing revenue without a clear strategy

The ultimate aim of any product manager is to create a product that attracts and retains paying customers. But jumping into revenue generation without a strategy is a huge mistake.

There’s little benefit in running ads, crafting outreach campaigns, or releasing new features if you’ve just got ‘increasing MRR’ as your main goal. You might see positive results at first, but retention and revenue often drop over time. Building a loyal, paying customer base requires a more nuanced approach.

On the opposite side, some startup product managers forget about revenue altogether. They assume that building a great product will naturally attract paying customers, or that people shouldn’t pay for the product until it’s better established on the market. Indeed, creating more value should be a priority for your team, but it shouldn’t consume all of your attention and resources.

How to avoid this mistake

Don’t trade long-term gains for a few quick wins.

Work with the team to design a product strategy that complements your product vision. Share the strategy with the wider product team, so that everyone from sales and marketing to customer support are aligned on how to attract and nurture customers.

Before you can understand exactly what customers want, you need to test the product with a real audience and gather feedback. A robust strategy will help you deliver a ‘good enough’ product to market and deliver value to customers (incrementally, at least). Meanwhile, you should create pricing strategies and models that appeal to your specific target audience.

Lastly, don’t leave pricing and revenue considerations until the last minute. For tips on how to prepare, read this guide from Denys, our Marketing Lead: How to Market a New Product to Get First Paying Customers.

6. Saying ‘yes’ too often

A 2022 YouGov survey found that about half of American adults consider themselves to be people pleasers. How might this trait manifest in the workplace, specifically in product managers?

People-pleasing product managers hesitate to turn down unrealistic projects, deadlines, client/stakeholder demands, and team suggestions.

They also avoid healthy confrontation with founders, team members, and other stakeholders, which can threaten product success (for instance, allocating resources to projects that aren’t in the product’s best interests), and cause distrust and confusion within the team.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a people pleaser, you might still struggle to say no to people and projects early in your career. After all, you want to prove your leadership competence and show that you’re open-minded. But trust me – it’s not a sustainable approach. Sooner or later, you’ll either burn out, or find yourself out of a job. All because you kept saying yes to the wrong things.

How to avoid this mistake

When you say yes to something, you should be reasonably certain that:

  1. It will enhance product value and customer experience
  2. You or your team have enough resources to see it through

Use a prioritization framework, like Dai Clegg’s MoSCoW method or Intercom’s RICE model, to organize ideas from various sources (customer requests, team inputs, etc.) and assess their urgency.

I’d recommend involving several team members in this prioritization process: software engineers, product designer, marketing manager, and customer success manager, for example. In a smaller organization, you might even invite the founder or tech lead. The goal is to ensure everyone understands why a particular feature, product experiment, or redesign gets the ‘no’ or ‘not now’ vote.

How we prevent these issues at Railsware

It’s not like we don’t make mistakes – we do, and that’s just part of working with products. But with the help of a few key organizational approaches, we try to keep our mishaps to a minimum.

Flat organizational structure

As we mentioned earlier, strict hierarchies aren’t really our thing. At Railsware, we’ve adopted a holacratic (or flat) organizational structure, where roles are more important than titles. In short, this ensures that product managers don’t make decisions in isolation, processes don’t get blocked by needless approvals, and input from team members is always encouraged.

The BRIDGeS Framework

When it comes to keeping the whole team on the same page, we’ve got a framework for that. BRIDGeS, which stands for Benefits, Risks, Issues, Domain knowledge, Goals, and Solutions, is a flexible framework for multi-context decision-making. It’s a handy tool that our product managers often use for product discovery, idea screening, or problem-solving in general.

bridges framework banner

In a nutshell, BRIDGeS helps us to analyze a problem from multiple perspectives and generate viable solutions. Various members of the product team participate in a BRIDGeS session. Using colored cards, a virtual board, and built-in prioritization, teams can brainstorm and problem-solve in a structured, productive way.

Interested in trying it out yourself? Here’s more about how it works, and our ready-to-use FigJam template.

Hiring T-shaped professionals

We hire product managers with diverse skill sets and hands-on experience in product building. For us, it’s about finding T-shaped professionals; people who have deep expertise in different disciplines (e.g. design, engineering) and who are dedicated to continuous learning.

Product managers who aren’t just ‘managers’ typically make higher-impact contributions, get along better with the team, and design more well-rounded products.

P.S. If that sounds like you, have a look at our product management openings.

Wrapping up

You’ll inevitably make a few mistakes early in your product management career (and many more as you grow). At the same time, all of the missteps I’ve discussed here are avoidable. If you can tackle unhelpful tendencies – like perfectionism, biased decision-making, and poor planning – early on, your job will be much easier in the long run.