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12 product management challenges: the toughest parts of the job (and how to tackle them!)
Product managers are not the type to shy away from a challenge. Most product managers thrive with a fast-paced, varied product workflow. They live for the satisfaction of guiding a team through research, development, and execution to maximize customer delight.
But the varied, agile workflow that makes product management exciting is also what makes it uniquely challenging.
Last updated8 Oct 2021
A day in the life of a product manager involves switching between roles at dizzying speeds. Product managers need to be superhero communicators, strategists, innovators, organizers, researchers, and so much more. And they need to switch to the right role at the right time.
The first step towards tackling product management challenges is to understand them, and we're here to help. This article gives you key insights on the 12 toughest aspects of product management—and tips to solve them. Today.
The 12 toughest product management challenges
In Q2 2021, we asked a diverse group of 100 product management teams a simple question: “What part of your job do you find most challenging?”
Their answers illuminated 12 key pain points for modern product teams.
Here they are, including insights to help you understand your experiences in the context of the wider product community. Learning from these issues will help you prevent or resolve similar problems, and get on with being a product management superhero.
1. Organizational comms
Why it’s a challenge
Typical product teams are a beautiful cross-functional mix of product managers, engineers, UX designers, developers, and testers—all with different roles, perspectives, and priorities.
With such a diverse team, communication has to be seamless. Even excellent product roadmaps can fall apart due to misunderstandings and miscommunication. Strong relationships allow PM teams to work together towards shared product goals and adapt to changes rather than getting lost in conflicts.
That’s not all, though: product managers also need stellar communication with stakeholders across the organization to communicate key product information and get buy-in on new product ideas.
Clear, shared objectives that really speak to your team. Forget one-size-fits-all mission statements and focus on goals that your particular product team can get behind. Adapt them when product or organizational situations change.
Two-way communication. Top-down communication controls your message, but there’s no real conversation. Involve every product team member by directly asking them for suggestions and feedback—and implementing their ideas where you can. You can do this on the fly and during key stress moments like major product decisions.
Sharing, but not overloading. Rather than sending mass content that makes employees switch off, be selective. Group communications and send only what’s relevant. Keep your comms with other departments short and sweet, too—set aside time for brief check-ins and save the lengthy mailings and meetings for when they’re really needed.
Speak the shared language of customer insights with other departments. Every department values customer satisfaction in one way or another. Showing other teams clear stats on how happy your users are and where you’re losing them will help them understand how product goals fit into their team's goals. User research techniques will benefit internal and cross-team comms.
Where great marketers nail messaging externally, great product managers nail messaging internally for an increasingly complex mix of stakeholders from other disciplines around the business.
Great product managers communicate with those stakeholders in a way that speaks specifically to them so they know where their needs stand, feel clear about what's coming next and why it was prioritized, and trust their product management partner's judgment in determining how to maximize customer value.
Why it’s a challenge
With so many moving parts, product roadmaps can get derailed if any person or department in a product team can’t meet their deadlines. There’s typically pressure from other departments or stakeholders to get things done on their timeline rather than your own.
It’s difficult to design agile schedules that allow your team to adapt to new information or circumstances and other teams to meet their goals.
Use fewer scheduling tools—but really use them. Be wary of creating an additional admin burden with too many different calendar tools your team won’t use. Choose just one or two and set the expectation that these are up-to-date at all times. Where possible, integrate with other product workflow tools.
Use team-driven deadlines. Setting delivery dates for key milestones should be a dialogue between business and product teams, and within the product team itself. Empower your team by creating an environment where they can set—and meet—targets.
Make roadmaps lean and agile. Plan for your team to execute in iterations. After each sprint, schedule plenty of time to review and adapt the plan.
Be proactive in communicating delays or other deadline changes. This is especially important for cross-team alignment. Give other departments a heads-up as soon as possible and tell them why it’s happening.
3. Team alignment
Why it’s a challenge
Different roles, viewpoints, and strengths can pull your team in different directions. Team members can get so focused on their particular goals that they don’t see the bigger picture, creating conflicts and delays.
Understand your team’s specific alignment challenges. Often, managers apply standard techniques to encourage team alignment. Instead, identify each team member's particular goals, needs, and challenges to learn how to bring them together. This could also include learning how to anticipate and address blocks in discussions around your shared mission and vision.
Give clear, shared objectives that make sense to your team. Make it easy for your team to visualize their progress through measurable goals. Link team goals with the overall product and organizational vision, so your team understands how their work contributes to the whole. Don’t overdo it with lots of messy, fragmented goals: define your North Stars and align your team around them.
Align and re-align. Change is healthy. It’s inevitable that at points, your team will find themselves out of alignment with the main product and company vision. Find out why. It could be down to individual or departmental issues, but it could also be a sign that you need to adjust your vision around product or market changes and re-align the team.
4. Balancing responsibilities
Why it’s a challenge
Product managers can find themselves pulled between different tasks and stakeholders with varied—and often competing—priorities. Most days, on top of your existing backlog, everyone’s asking you for different things, and everyone says their requests are urgent. Sound familiar?
Separate the urgent from the important. What’s important is what really, truly needs to happen to make your product users happy. It’s easy to let your vision get clouded by other priorities that often seem louder and more urgent. For example, it may be urgent to meet an internal deadline to launch a new website, but what’s more important is to make sure you get that website right before launch.
Rigorously question the value of each task. Whether looking at your product backlog or fielding stakeholder inputs, step back and ask yourself how each task will impact key goals like user satisfaction, new client acquisition, reach, revenue, and retention.
Use a classic value vs effort matrix to determine which tasks will give you the most return, and focus on the high-value tasks—which means both quick wins and longer-haul (but important) activities. To help determine these, you could run a cost of delay analysis.
Let user data lead the way. Get clear data on what matters to your users. How? It’s simple: ask them. Use Hotjar to collect information through Surveys and Incoming Feedback widget scores to find out where your real priorities should lie. Heatmaps and Session Recordings will also show you where you’re losing your users—which is where you need to focus.
5. Product team ops
Why it’s a challenge
In a product team, people are everything. Product managers play a key role in recruiting, training, and onboarding new team members, and empowering the existing product team to work at their best.
It’s easy for product managers to get lost in the day-to-day of product specs, fixes, and design and development, and forget to prioritize people ops. But attracting product talent and leading your existing team is the foundation of product success.
Hire with care. Don’t make final hiring decisions based solely on remote tests or what happens in an interview. Work closely with HR or People Ops to make careful hiring decisions for your product team, and see how potential hires work within your team culture by including your current team in the interview or test process.
Think of employee experience as a product. All product managers know the best products attract and retain users. Your approach to team ops should be similar. Hire the best product team possible and design an employee experience to make them feel valued, fulfilled, and empowered. This might involve taking action on employee suggestions, offering flexibility and perks, and celebrating their value.
Take a data-driven approach. You don't have to wait for structured check-ins to get feedback from your team. Send team surveys weekly or monthly and at key points in the product cycle, and ask them questions on the fly about their relationships with colleagues, workload, and feedback levels. Being proactive about getting feedback will help you prevent issues, offer support, and ensure your team is empowered to do the best job possible.
What is really important, and often not emphasized enough, is building a diverse team. We want to make sure our team represents our customers: people (men/women/non-binary) from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives, all sharing the same values.
6. Creativity and being unique
Why it’s a challenge
With the pressures of deadlines and stakeholders and a growing to-do list, product managers are often so swamped with daily minutia they don’t have the headspace to consider the big picture and lead a culture of creativity.
But to stay competitive and innovate at the highest capacity, creativity and uniqueness are core values for product teams.
Tap into the creativity of your team. Product managers often assume they need to drive creativity alone, but the best ideas come from collaboration. Create a culture where all team members feel empowered and inspired to share their ideas by creating channels to discuss new initiatives and celebrate idea-sharing.
Take the pressure off. Nothing blocks creativity like the pressure to come up with the next big product feature. Make space for casual brainstorming, where the product team can share ideas and observations without worrying whether they’re valuable or even realistic. Anonymous suggestion boxes and notice boards (in-person or virtual) can be great ways for employees to share their thoughts without fear of judgment.
Look at current problems and products. Remember that unique products are often developed incrementally. Creative product design isn’t about a random lightbulb moment. Often, it’s a less glamorous, more prosaic process. Look at your current products and your current users and think outside the box around how you can take small steps towards solving their problems. The big ideas will follow.
7. Keeping up with tech
Why it’s a challenge
Staying on the pulse of new technology trends is crucial for product managers who need to understand market change and user needs to inform product design. But many product managers feel it’s impossible to keep up, and worry about finding themselves out of the loop without much time to spare—and with no clear sense of where to look.
Build a tech-savvy culture. Your engineers are likely a great—and often untapped—source of tech news. Encourage your whole product team to share articles and insights* on new and emerging technology, and become more involved in content creation for your site.
Use different forms of media. Product managers are often low on time-and-attention resources. Using a mix of audio, video, and text sources can help you stay focused and connected to tech news in the small spaces within your day. By all means, use RSS feeds, product management blogs, and sites like TechCrunch, ReadWrite, and Mashable for longer reads. But also follow product influencers on Twitter, listen to podcasts, and check out videos and Instagram or TikTok reels for bite-sized chunks of tech news.
Focus. It’s impossible to stay up to date with every aspect of tech. New ideas may come from outside your field, so you don’t want to close yourself off too much—but you should focus most of your time seeking tech news on the specific technologies related to your product or user base.
*Hotjar's Tech team just started doing this! Check out the new Hotjar Tech blog.
Why it’s a challenge
Validating whether the market truly needs the products you’re building is crucial. But when you already have a growing backlog, it’s hard to fit in strategic research or know where to start.
Set clear objectives. Without focused, targeted research objectives, research is an endless (and endlessly time-consuming) activity. Break it down into chunks instead of chasing huge swathes of information that may or may not be relevant. Define a specific research question, whether that’s “Does my product’s pricing fit the market, and if not, why not?” or “Has my user persona changed since the product launched?”
Balance different kinds of research. Block out time for distinct forms of research. Do exploratory analysis to better understand the problems you’re trying to solve and whether they’re the same problems that matter to your customer. Research the competition to understand the product landscape and hone your USP. Most importantly, dive deep into user insights to learn what users need, think, and feel. Which brings us to…
Ask questions on the fly. Many product managers put off research because they treat it as a separate activity from day-to-day operations. But customer research doesn’t always have to involve lengthy focus groups or weeks of survey design. Hotjar can help! Add the Incoming Feedback widget to key pages, use an on-site Survey as a suggestion box, and look at customer satisfaction (CSAT) surveys to get a steady stream of incoming customer data without the need for structured research.
9. Training others
Why it’s a challenge
A key part of product management is setting your team up for success. That may mean training new hires and creating a growth culture where your current product team is encouraged to learn, train, and upskill. Often, staff onboarding and training happen at the last minute without a clear plan, which is a missed opportunity for product managers to lead the product culture.
Balance information with hands-on learning. New hires used to be given stacks of company literature and paperwork to guide their learning for the first weeks. But this is both counterproductive—information overload doesn't lead to information retention—and uninspiring. Assign new employees small product tasks (quick wins are a great motivator) and encourage them to engage in as much collaborative work as possible.
Use your team’s expertise. Make sure new hires get to know as many product team members as soon as possible so they understand the big picture before jumping into their specific roles. When that time comes, incorporate as much peer learning as possible into the training process. Assign new employees an onboarding buddy or even have them shadow a fellow team member for a day.
Gather information and tailor your training. Be prepared to adapt your training plan to individual needs. Ask new hires and current employees alike how they learn best, what gets them excited, and how they like to receive feedback—and adapt where possible. Make time for both new employees and current team members to have one-on-ones with you to discuss their personal and professional objectives and how you can support them.
10. Customer satisfaction
Why it’s a challenge
Customer satisfaction should be your North Star. Everything revolves around whether your product satisfies user needs. Without an accurate gauge of how your customers are feeling, your product decisions are just shots in the dark.
But many organizations struggle to collect reliable customer satisfaction data—or they gather customer information in stops and starts, collecting huge amounts of unstructured data that sits around until the next data sweep.
Integrate customer satisfaction feedback into your product and website. Use tools like Hotjar to remove friction and make it easy for your users to give you feedback on the go. External surveys are a great way of understanding customers’ overall feelings about their product experience, but only a small percentage of users might respond to them. Use Incoming Feedback tools to discover how satisfied users are while they’re engaging with your product to get a real sense of what they’re feeling.
Measure satisfaction with quantitative tools. Putting a number on customer satisfaction can be extremely useful. Quantitative tools like customer satisfaction score (CSAT) surveys ask users to rate their satisfaction on a fixed scale, usually with a binary yes/no response or a choice of smiley/sad faces. Quantitative customer satisfaction data is quick to collect and relatively objective, and it’s easy for product managers to spot trends and changes in this kind of data.
Dig deeper with qualitative tools. To really understand why your customers are satisfied or not, you’ll need to use qualitative tools. Hotjar offers freeform surveys so you can easily access Voice of Customer (VoC) data. This helps you go beyond just measuring customer satisfaction to empathizing with their experience—and learning how to improve it for them.
💡 Pro tip: to unearth the most actionable customer satisfaction insights, you also need to know what your customers aren’t saying about your product.
Use Hotjar Recordings to view user sessions from start to finish, then filter Session Recordings by sessions that include Feedback to pinpoint the moment a dissatisfied customer ran into an issue or hit a blocker. Placing their feedback in the context of a recorded session better enables you to understand where the problem is.
HOTJAR RECORDINGS ENABLE YOU TO VIEW USER SESSIONS FROM START TO FINISH
11. Data management and privacy
Why it’s a challenge
Don't be tempted to collect as much user data as possible without having a data strategy in place. Customer data is a superpower—and with great power comes great responsibility. In addition to having your own strategy, adhere to website tracking and data protection laws like the European Union’s GDPR, which highlight the need to treat user data with extreme care.
Be transparent about the data you collect. Let users know what personal information you want to collect, and tell them exactly why you’re collecting it. For example, in the EU, you’ll need to specifically ask for their consent if you don’t have another lawful basis for gathering personal data.
Get selective. New data privacy laws are an opportunity to re-evaluate what user data you actually need. Beyond basic demographic data for user profiling and segmentation, you may find it’s more useful to ask users for information about their product experience rather than themselves. Strategically collecting the minimum amount of information possible will cover you legally, but lean data collection also makes it more likely you’ll use the details you collect.
Center data protection in your product and culture design.
Data security should be a core part of your user experience, whether by placing privacy notices in more prominent locations or tweaking consent forms for greater clarity. Make sure your internal processes are also driven by care for personal data. By respecting your users’ data, you can earn their trust.
As a Product Manager, the importance lies in communicating what data we need, how we use it, and how this benefits our customer needs.
Transparency in this context does not mean communicating endless pages of terms and conditions, transparency means sharing what a customer needs to know to help them understand the choices they can make.
💡 Hotjar takes privacy seriously. From day one, our products have been designed and built with privacy in mind. Learn more about your privacy and Hotjar here.
Why it’s a challenge
Product managers need to know product revenue inside and out—but you also need to have a firm grasp on profitability and other financials to understand your product’s financial impact, and to inform pricing decisions and investments in new features. But many product managers don’t have finance training, and the business financial landscape can seem overwhelming and irrelevant.
Talk to stakeholders within your organization. Understand which financials are important to the stakeholders you collaborate with, whether contribution margins, profitability, or return on investment. This will help you focus your efforts on mastering the most relevant financials. You’ll be able to speak to other departments in their language to lobby for product investment or explain the need for further resources.
Upskill with product-focused finance training. Look for finance courses or books specifically tailored towards product managers. Stronger financial literacy will help you create more nuanced product hypotheses, calculate market opportunities, and make more confident decisions—and will improve your communication to executives and stakeholders.
Why product management challenges are opportunities
At some stage, most product managers will find themselves confronted by one of these twelve challenges—or, let’s be honest, by several all at once.
But product manager challenges are opportunities.
By tackling core issues with communication, alignment, and team ops, you’ll empower your team to pull together and respond to roadblocks with agility and grace.
Finding solutions to balancing your responsibilities and managing deadlines will force you to get strategic and prioritize what’s important.
And troubleshooting problems with research, tech knowledge, and customer satisfaction insights will bring you closer to your product and users than ever before.
Problem-solving is a product manager's superpower. Understanding the challenges we covered above, and tackling them head-on, is a path to more effective product management and satisfied users.
Let product experience insights lead the way
Use Hotjar to collect product feedback so you can prioritize and tackle the challenges that matter most, and create products your users love.