Expand Your Comfort Zone A Product Management Quiz to Point You in the Right Direction

By Xenia Kwee September 16, 2009

The Pragmatic Marketer Volume 7 Issue 4OK…I will write it down for all to see right here: I am a product manager. Sometimes I cry at work. There are restrooms on both coasts and in Europe where I have retreated and cried, looked in the mirror, and somehow convinced myself to step out that door and keep on going. It’s not that unusual really. I have come close to crying at work when I was a teacher, an artist, a temporary file clerk, and a waitress. So why shouldn’t product managers cry?

What seems odd is that, after all these years, I am in an occupation for which I possess experience and qualifications (unlike the days when I tried my hand at construction, astrophysics, phone sales, and fortune telling). And I believe I have reached some level of maturity and ability to put things in perspective; yet occasionally, I just lose it. Maybe it has something to do with being in a role where I have very little control, but feel responsible for everything. It’s a role that requires my involvement in every detail, but does not give me the opportunity to develop expertise in anything. It’s a role in which I must try to work well with everyone and still be prepared to deliver bad news to those same people.

Three constituencies

The three key constituencies I work with every day are Sales, Engineering, and executives. Their goals are in conflict with one another. Their working styles are dissimilar. They often don’t trust each other. I have the privilege of working with all of them, listening to them, and trying to give meaning and direction to their work.

It is easy to imagine that if the engineers ran the company, we would have the most perfect product ever, but it would be several years late to market. If the sales force ran the company, we would give all customers exactly what they asked for, and end up with 1,000 different products. But since the executives run the company, they give the product manager the impossible directive to “get it done; get it done right; get it done faster-—and have the foresight to change direction in midstream and still get it done right and on time.”

In order to have a rewarding job amidst these challenges, it is important to develop effective relationships with all three constituencies and to balance the needs of each group. We all have skills and ways of working that come naturally to us.

By nature, some of us are drawn to the sales team. It’s where the energy is-—where the highs are high and the lows are truly way down low. Some of us prefer to hang out with the techies, grapple with the tough problems, find elegant solutions, and revel in that great sense of accomplishment that comes from breaking new ground. Others are skilled at inspiring executives and investors, at painting a vision for the future, and at distilling vast amounts of confusing information into nuggets of great wisdom, which can create unique opportunities. Yet, no matter how masterful we are at working with one area of the company, it is inevitable that another area will feel shortchanged.

Product management quiz
To help you assess your effectiveness in working with each constituency, I developed an assessment of product management types. It’s a bit like the Myers-Briggs test, but just for product managers. If you are a product manager torn in many directions, give it a go, and see how your score matches up against the product management archetypes.

Product Management Quiz
For each question, choose the one answer that best describes how you work as a product manager.

1. A nearby elementary school is holding Career Day. Your job is to take seven 10-year olds on a tour of your company’s offices. Where do you take them first?

  1. The R&D area, where they can see the equipment and the whiteboards full of drawings and writing
  2. The large conference room where they can sit in swivel chairs and play with PowerPoint
  3. The sales area, where they can see the awards and the map with a colored pushpin for every customer location

2. Your company is in the process of acquiring a firm in Oregon. You are going there with a colleague for a one-day due diligence visit. The schedule calls for a red-eye flight home. This means that you and your colleague will spend seven hours together at the airport. With whom would you prefer to travel?

  1. Head of Technology
  2. Head of Finance
  3. Head of Sales

3. You just had a great phone interview with the CEO of a newly funded startup. She is looking for someone to start a product management team. She asks you to send her a sample of your work immediately, so she can show it to the investor who urged her to bring on a product manager. Which sample do you have readily available that illustrates your work?

  1. Product Requirements Document
  2. Business Case showing revenue and profitability projections
  3. PowerPoint presentation showing a product’s features, benefits, and competitive position

4. You spent three days at a tradeshow. You’ve been in non-stop meetings, demos, and press briefings. It is the last day of the show, and you have three hours of free time before leaving for the airport. What do you do?

  1. Visit lots of booths and collect neat giveaways, so you can hand them out to the engineers back at the office
  2. Swap badges with a colleague, so you can attend the closing keynote. Corner the speaker and convince him to co-author an article with your CEO
  3. Crash a competitor’s sponsored breakfast, where you are sure to meet customers open to switching vendors, given the competitor’s dismal financial results last quarter

5. You and your boss are waiting for a plane. She pulls out today’s newspaper and offers you a section. The section you request is:

  1. Science and Technology
  2. Financial News
  3. Sports

6. You are expecting a call from an industry analyst who wants to interview you for a study about your product and products like it. You take a few minutes to review his firm’s website, where you notice they have recently written a brief about a new company with a product that sounds a lot like the product your company is developing. You go to the competitor’s website to find out more. There are three links on the company’s front page. The one you click first is:

  1. Technology and Whitepapers
  2. Investor Relations
  3. Customers and Case Studies

7. It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. You’ve enjoyed a nice lunch, and you are about to craft an out-of-office message, when the head of Sales stops by to show you an RFP she received. There are two other people available to help complete more than 300 questions over the holiday. You glance over the questions and feel positively about your company’s ability to win this business. You volunteer to answer the section about:

  1. Product architecture
  2. Corporate information
  3. Pricing

8. It’s hard to believe that in these difficult times you find yourself with two job offers. Both jobs offer similar base pay and benefits, and both jobs provide a very good fit for your career goals. Your gut is already telling you which one you want. Clearly, you are drawn to the job that offers:

  1. A chance to work with really cool technology
  2. Preferred stock options that could be worth a lot when the company goes public or is acquired
  3. A great big bonus if your product meets its revenue goals

9. Your favorite nephew borrowed money from his roommate and started a business. You are eager to see him succeed, and you agree to spend an occasional evening helping him out. As a first step, you offer to:

  1. Create a website for him
  2. Setup Quickbooks for him
  3. Fine tune his sales pitch

Let’s look at your score
To determine your score, count the number of times you answered a, b, or c and plot your answers along the three axes shown in the following chart.

expand chart1

If you have a clear preference for working with just one area, your graph might look like this:

green arrow1

You are drawn to technology and technical people. Seek opportunities for meeting with customers going on sales calls.

green arrow2

You have executive talents. Have you considered running your own company?

green arrow3

You are a great supporter of the sales team. Hopefully they reward you. Take some time to go see the engineers. They may be getting lonely.

If you have skills in two areas, here is how your graph might look:


You are a visionary who sees vast new opportunities for technology. Long sales cycles frustrate you. Make sure you follow-up with existing customers. You can gain great insights from them


Technology and Sales. What a rare combination. You will never lack job opportunities. But will your products make money?

green arrow6
Does the word Strategic appear in your title? In the current downturn, people may wonder what you really do. Why not volunteer to answer the next 80 page RFP?

And if you have the rare ability to work with all three, your graph will look like this:

expand chart 3

You like to stay will versed in all areas of the business. Your interest and style enable you to develop a common vision for your product that is inspiring to all you work with. You are not easily intimidated by demanding customers or complex technology. You try to understand what is behind the complaints or the complexity and use it to chart a new course.

Expanding your comfort zone
So now that you know where you are most comfortable, it is worthwhile to consider how you can become more adept in those areas where your natural talents and style are not as strong. A great way to expand your comfort zone is to ask people in those areas some basic questions. Here are some examples.

  • If you find yourself completely overwhelmed by a CEO who constantly forwards press releases and articles…ask what she thinks about those articles, how she learned to sift through so many different viewpoints and distill what is important today, and what issues to track with an eye toward the future. You may find that this endless stream of information isn’t meant to overwhelm or discourage or distract you. It could be that all she expects you to do is organize it and pick out one or two ideas or trends each week that capture your imagination. 
  • If you find that the engineers’ endless requests for more detail and more precision create an insurmountable amount of work for you, take a step back and think of ways to provide the engineering team with new insights and inspiration. Provide them vivid examples of how the product is used by real people. Tell them users’ names; tell them about those users’ interests, ambitions, and frustrations. Before long, you will find that the engineers are able to make better decisions and require less detailed specifications-—because they have a better idea of how the product will be used.
  • If you have a hard time responding to requests from Sales, first remember how fortunate you are that there are people out there selling your product. Even if they ask for things that are nowhere on your roadmap, acknowledge their input. Schedule regular feedback sessions with Sales, and let them know about the direction of the product. Provide them with talking points they can use at customer meetings and questions they can ask. And make the time to go on calls with them whenever you can. This process allows you to talk to customers without being in selling mode, discover opportunities, and gain feedback. By working together, you can align the customer’s plans with the product plans, and avoid those difficult situations where you have to commit to developing one-off solutions.
  • If you work in a team of product managers, you have a great chance to learn from one another and to shamelessly copy other team members’ techniques. If you are a manager and have a chance to put together a team, look for product managers with different backgrounds. Put a hot-shot MBA side by side with an experienced engineer-turned-product manager. You will end up with two well-versed product managers.
Categories: Roles & Activities
Xenia Kwee

Xenia Kwee

Xenia Kwee has worked in product management in B2B technology firms for over 15 years. Currently she is Director of Product Management for Aliaswire Inc. in Cambridge MA. Previously she held product management positions for Irdeto Mobile, InteliData, and Gartner Group. She is the founder of Prouductive, a product development consulting firm that serves startups and investors. A graduate of MIT and a certified New Product Development Professional, Xenia writes about product management and soul music at http://productsoul.blogspot.com and can be reached at xenia@prouductive.com

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