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I had just been promoted to product manager and I was assigned Demographic Targeting. The product excited the small group of advertisers who knew of its existence because it would change the way advertisers bid on campaigns on Google AdSense sites. I was thrilled to work on it. Maybe, I thought, it would be the first feather in my cap as a product manager. It turned out to be a disaster.

A month before, I had transferred from the AdSense account management team and over the course of a few weeks, came up to speed on the project. Demographic data of AdSense publishers appeared in the AdWords front end so AdWords advertisers could use the data to influence campaign spend. It was a joint project between AdSense and AdWords engineering teams which meant quite a bit of coordination of engineering priorities and lots of meetings to ensure the development plan had consensus. Things started out great. The senior PM who passed the product to me had set me up for success.

But there was a problem. I disagreed with the implementation. Well, the real problem is the development for the product was more than 50% completed and I wanted to change the design dramatically. After thinking about the responsibilities of a PM, I resolved to make my views known. I met with my manager and the engineering team lead and made my case for stopping the project. Before building consensus, I announced to the team that we were stopping work. I removed the project from the priority list and told our engineers they could work on other things. Cue plane crash.

I’ll never forget how I felt when my team told me how furious they were with my management of the project. How I hadn’t taken into account their points of view and acted alone to change the project. My stomach still turns remembering those meetings. I had let them down.

In reflection, I had made a critical mistake. I hadn’t communicated with my team. I hadn’t listened to alternate points of view and weighed them. Nor did I make sure my team’s concerns and thoughts were heard. Over the next 18 months, I worked hard to improve communication by soliciting opinions, building clear product roadmaps and building consensus. Though I never mastered the skill, the team worked better together and we built momentum. I give all the credit to the team that stuck with me through those learning pains.

Leading a team of any size, even a company, is a constant challenge. Startups move quickly. They change business models, swap priorities, respond to urgent customer needs. Through it all, though, CEOs and leaders of a company should focus on communication.

Communicate product plans, staffing plans, competitive threats, marketing and positioning plans to everyone in the company. Over-communication is far better than under-communication. The same is true for board members – educate them so they can help. By getting everyone on the same page, working toward the same goals, the company’s force can be multiplied. And honesty is essential. When everyone knows the challenges the company is facing, they can rise to the occasion.

To ensure all employees are on the same page, many of our companies host weekly all hands meetings. During these meetings, new product initiatives are announced and demoed. Feedback is solicited. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions and voice opinions. Managers can build continuity and community. There is an ongoing conversation.

Goals should underpin these meetings. Goals should be set at every layer of the company, first quarterly and when the company has a long term plan, annually. From the CEO to the account manager. At Google, there were always 2 sets of goals. The promised goal (90% sure to hit) and the “reach” target (70% sure to hit). Managers then evaluated goals periodically and tracked progress. These milestones serve as a great structure to frame the weekly meetings.

With this kind of system, a management team can communicate progress effectively. And by reinforcing small wins, the company can develop a sense of momentum and success.

But it all hinges on communication.

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6 thoughts on “Lessons in communication: how I failed as a product manager

  1. Have you read ‘Effective Communication Skills for scientific and technical professionals’ from Chambers?
    Not really groundbreaking ideas, but a very nice list of things all technical professionals must always keep in mind.

    • Thanks, Andy. I’m a big fan of your blog. I’ve taken some inspiration from you and I’m trying to build a roadmap. But it hasn’t materialized yet!

  2. I remember clearly when you became a PM. It was actually very exciting / inspiring for people in the Account Management team to see someone promoted to such level.

    Taking the time to discuss your communication mistakes shows a high level of emotional intelligence. Kudos

    With Hindsight, I am not sure the product itself was quite ready for prime time. When I look at Google Ad Planner today and all the data retrieved either internally or externally with third party and also the improvements made with cookie (and cookie policies), I wonder if Demographic Targeting did not launch too early. Today you could really scale and reach such a large volume of publishers and make it even more efficient with the re-targeting technology pushed at a later stage. I disgress.

    Thank you for the post

    Etienne (who wishes Tom was working on Demographic Targeting for a major mobile ad network 🙂

  3. Thanks for writing this, Etienne. I miss my days in OSO. You have a great point about the product. Today, it would be much more powerful.

    Hope Paris and Magma are treating you well!

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