How to Win By Being Wrong

Product managers early in their careers often have a difficult time being told they’re wrong.  I think there’s a logical reason for that.  It’s not always ego.  Most of us go through many years of education in which we receive a grade.  The grade is based on instances of being right versus being wrong.  So, we’ve been conditioned to think – and feel – that being wrong is bad.  And that notion, at least in the context of Product Management, is misguided.  Actually, it’s downright dangerous.

When I coached folks on my team in the past, I would say that “It’s okay to be wrong”.  Looking back, that wasn’t the right message.  I should have been saying “I expect you to be wrong.”  Essentially, the most critical (and arguably difficult) aspect of the job is the research and discovery phase.  It requires market analysis, collaboration with customers and feedback with internal teams.  Research is often based on an assumption or hypothesis.  Our biggest wins can be achieved by being absolutely, unequivocally wrong.  We can assume we have the right solution design, but until we’ve validated that thinking, it isn’t “right”.  So, tinkering with that list as new information comes in, makes the design stronger until it’s ready to be built for real.

Conversely, product careers get wiped out by being proven wrong post-implementation.  This means that rather than getting the right validation and applying the tweaks to build out a better product, the PM rushes the design into implementation.  Sure, you may get lucky, but why risk it?  Validating ideas early in the process is risk mitigation.  It’s insurance. 

Three more things:

  • I used to be an early-stage PM who despised being told I was wrong.  Now?  I enjoy it.  I know that it’s a step toward building something incredible.
  • The byproducts of getting early customer validation is building trust with clients and maybe even getting a quote from a customer that could be used in marketing communications later downstream in the release process.
  • Being “not wrong” doesn’t mean perfection.  It really means molding a solution (or a prioritization, a strategy, a pricing structure, a market position, etc) until you have enough confidence that the outcome will help you and your customers reach your respective goals.

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