The Bad & the Ugly: How Not to Teach Product Management


The Product Management community is full of enthusiastic examples of product people who have learnt from special mentors. Throughout their lives, they have met excellent professionals who either inspired them or helped them get their first product position. These mentors are often Product Managers themselves, but many also come from diverse positions. They can appear in your life as unexpectedly as a new romance and boost your career more than an entire university degree.

These are the good ones.

What about the bad ones?

Yes, this is undeniable: there is bad Product Management teaching out there. Not bad PMs, of course! Everyone can have a rough day. As nice as we might want to be to our fellow product people, all of us know one or two cases of interventions that did not match expectations. And this translates into teaching and training. Product Management being such a novel discipline, it can be difficult to deliver the “standard” lecture. Which content should it include? What should it spend more time dealing with?

However, this should not be confused with failing to provide an adequate learning experience for students. Read the key mistakes and reasons why Product Management educators make them!


Bad Product Management Mentoring

Before delving into Product Management Mentoring specifics, we will take a look at mistakes made by countless masters through the centuries:

  • Keep talking about themselves. First of all, a mentor, teacher or guru should always keep the following in mind: you are not the main actor in this play, the listener is! Instructors who spend too much time talking about themselves will alienate their students. Personal examples should not be used in vain, but to illustrate theoretical and practical points.
  • Generalize. You might be counseling an individual or addressing a packed theater. Whatever you do, remember to target your message. It should acknowledge the community the listener belongs to, employing appropriate language and ensuring that it is fulfilling your goals.
  • Refuse to admit their shortcomings. Of course, we all like to present a flawless image of ourselves. Sometimes, this leads teachers to portray their expertise way beyond their areas of actual knowledge. While, in the short term, they might seem more interesting, this can eventually become a huge problem. You are not being honest to yourself or to those you are teaching. Admitting that you are not acquainted with a particular method is not the end of the world and can actually help improve your standing with your audience.
  • Remain closed to innovation. Even more important in tech than anywhere else, constant improvement is a force for good. But, for some who are dependent on the old ways of doing things, it can be difficult to embrace transformation. Certain teachers will simply rely on what they learnt when they were students;or stay attached to certain schools of thought that feel closer. What they might perceive as loyalty can do a lot of damage to those being guided by them.
  • Focus on irrelevant knowledge. Hey, who has not been through this? At school, public presentations tend to be an important part of evaluating your performance. Through your professional life, you will also face situations when it is very important to deliver information for either internal or external stakeholders. In any case, without preparation, any such deliveries are usually plagued by irrelevant or unconnected bits. This is to be avoided at all costs: a lesson must be like the perfect song or poem, with exactly the needed notes and syllables to make it rhyme.
  • Become obsessed with the latest fad. Regardless of when you read this article, the truth is we humans are very herd-like. Once a particular business idea becomes really popular (having a social media account in the early 2000s), it becomes divorced from data. It basically becomes the standard request and response among tech and other executives. But this is a mistake. In the age of social media, it is harder to distinguish really powerful innovations from just an idea with a really good marketing team behind.
  • Hold grudges. They say the more you live, the more enemies you make. But, in business and learning, this should not guide your conscience. The fact is, you might have some episodes in your life you want to forget. Companies you dislike, bosses you disapproved with, teams you actually hated… But this cannot influence your lessons! If you are teaching Product Management, these misgivings must be left aside. You have to focus on what these examples contribute to the lesson, not on how they hurt you in the past.
  • Forget to ask for feedback. This is so typical of novel instructors. They tend to lack confidence and are thus reluctant to ask about their performance. But they should actually do the opposite! We, students, are very diverse: it is impossible to cater to all of our needs. Mentors should always learn from their mistakes. Some very experienced teachers are also overconfident and, at some point, they stop requesting advice. Big mistake: feedback is the only way to progress.

While all of these apply more or less to all sorts of teaching, these 10 points apply to Product Management teaching in particular. Many of them will be recognized by readers who have attended an event or taken a course at traditional university settings:

  1. Ignore one or more Product Management areas of concern. PM involves technical expertise, design awareness, customer knowledge, commercial acumen… All of these aspects must be taken into account and deserve equal consideration.
  2. Portray your path into product as the only obvious one. You might or might not be the “stereotypical” PM: transitioning from Software Engineering or similar positions. The truth is, many PMs come from different backgrounds and this should be reflected in your presentation.
  3. Focus only on successful examples. Uber, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook… they all come to mind when thinking about tech. They are used extensively as illustrations. However, students can learn a great deal from failure too. Instructors should not be lazy and research some mistaken but interesting cases of absolute tech failures.
  4. Forget differences between small startups and large companies. Related to the point above, today there is a
    fetishization of large digital players. However, most of the tech community works in smaller operations. Even those within Google sometimes work as if they were at a startup. Thus, instructors must reflect on the divergent needs of startups and corporations.
  5. Discuss just local product concerns. Yes, the Internet was first deployed in developed economies, but today most of the developing world is online. This public, usually mobile-first, has different demands and might therefore seek other solutions. A good product mentor must consider this in their teaching.
  6. Overlook issues of diversity and accessibility. Again, while there might be biases which apply to our day-to-day experience, they should not be an obstacle to teaching tech. In fact, acknowledging differences within society can help make products open to more people and, therefore, more profitable!
  7. Undervalue the power of networks and communities. Yes, individual excellence is good on its own. But a successful PM instructor must also establish the relevance of developing relationships with your fellow product people. Events, discussion groups and other environments are vital for a career to take off. Make sure to ingrain that in your mentees’ minds.
  8. Emphasize technical skills above all else. Sure, PMs work in the digital sphere and should know their way around coding, Artificial Intelligence, and the like. However, soft skills are a must too. Your students will never be prepared if they do not know how to manage stakeholders, present an idea in public or prepare a sales pitch.
  9. Promote a winner-takes-all product approach. Films and TV have popularized the idea of fearless digital entrepreneurs who alineate their teams and even their friends in order to make it to the top. But this is false! Actually, PMs must know how to generate consensus and build teams. The ability to generate win-win deals is one of the most valued in the product world.
  10. Prioritize tools over mechanisms. This is a tricky one. When we work, we all end up relying on certain apps or programs for our success. However, what we tend to forget is that these are the platforms where we solve problems; not the solutions. Software and hardware change, but what never gets old is a mind open to learning new ways of solving issues. This should be the focus of PM mentoring.

Why Do Product Management Business Schools Make Mistakes?

As both the business and educational community have increased their interest in Product Management, courses and courses have emerged. Prestigious names are being attached to supposedly “excellent” Product Management courses. However, as it tends to happen when non-experts try to enter unknown fields, their lack of knowledge is evident.

There are many reasons for this distance between business and academia. First, professors lack the kind of pressure which forces tech leaders to think fast. They can afford to reflect on decades of advancements, pick and choose the best possible case studies… But this is not real! Whether in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, product life is hectic. Not necessarily always stressful, but most of the time requiring a time-efficient perspective on work and team management.

Secondly, “theories” always emerge in practice. At least the successful ones. While across schools and colleges everyone is now studying the “Agile Manifesto”, this work was written by practitioners in the field. Their impressions of what actually matters when developing products were the result of countless hours of trial and error. Whatever the next product paradigm will look like, it is being developed right now by PMs who are in the business.

Finally, the truth is that Product Management is not given its proper consideration in traditional educational institutions. Think of Mark Zuckerberg and many other tech leaders who abandoned academia. Those institutions usually misunderstand the goals and problems faced by actual tech entrepreneurs. While there are great masters of the field out there, the truth is that many of them fall into the general list of mistakes above: generalize, remain closed to innovation, focus on irrelevant topics…

You need to be taught by an active practitioner to make the most of your time as a student.


How To Improve and Train Professional PMs

Now that you know the mistakes, you should be well on your way to avoid them either as a mentor or as a student. Product careers are as diverse as product people, so never get discouraged by a bad learning experience. Actually, you should experience as many styles as possible via talks or conferences to find out what suits you best.

If you are in the business and are interested in corporate training, here are some useful tips to get started. After the first decade of emergence, the PM discipline is consolidating: it is the time for professionally-trained Product Managers to take over the business. Make sure that you cover gaps in your training by saying goodbye to bad mentors!


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