You’re a few weeks into your role as a product manager with a new organization. Your offices are pretty cool. The team seems welcoming, smart, and energetic. And from what you can tell, this company is going to give you a lot of strategic freedom to guide your products, which is exactly what you were hoping for in your next product management role. There’s just one teeny tiny problem.
The product is… well, let’s just say you’re not overseeing a SpaceX rocket, or even the next-generation Roomba vacuum cleaner. No, your product is boring. It’s really, really boring.
It’s a small sensor that gets mounted on the wall above steam pipes in manufacturing plants to monitor the temperature and make sure that…
You can’t even finish explaining it without boring yourself. And when you describe it to other people, you see that glazed-over look in their eyes, too—usually by the time you get to the phrase “manufacturing plants” in the statement above.
Do You Really Need to Be Enthusiastic About Your Products?
Is the situation hopeless? We’re taught that product managers should be their products’ most vocal cheerleaders, and that’s true. But what if you don’t find your product interesting? What if, personally, you couldn’t care less about the product, or the companies that use it, or your entire industry?
Can you still be an effective product champion and a successful product manager if you don’t find your product inherently exciting? Yes, and here’s how.
3 Ways to Deal With a Product That Makes You Yawn
1. Find enthusiasm in another aspect of your role.
You like your offices, right? The team is fun to work with. Maybe they have good snacks in the break room.
Managing your product is only one aspect of your role as a PM. You’re also part of a team, and you get to make strategic decisions and brainstorm and talk to customers and go out into the field and see how those abstract discussions you’ve had with your product team have turned into real-world tools that real people at real companies are using and enjoying.
“Managing your product is only one aspect of your role as a PM. If you’re uninspired by your product, find enthusiasm in a different area of your work.”
The point is, there’s always something you can get enthused about in your role. (And if you make a good-faith effort to find something and cannot—not even one thing—then you might just have to leave. More on that below.)
2. Gamify your job.
In his book Flow, author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how we can find satisfaction and enjoyment in just about any activity as long as it meets a few criteria: It’s challenging (physically or mentally), it has clear rules, and we get immediate and continuous feedback about our performance.
Rock climbing is a good example of what Dr. Csikszentmihalyi would call a flow activity. So is learning to play the piano, or surfing, or playing chess. Or working on an assembly line.
Wait… what? Working on an assembly line? That sounds like the most boring job ever invented. How could that possibly be a flow activity?
The thesis of Csikszentmihalyi’s book is that when you engage in any activity that meets those criteria above (it pushes your limits, it has rules, and it always lets you know right away whether or not you’re doing it well), you have the opportunity to go into what he calls the flow state. You might have heard this described as “being in the zone.” It’s the state where you lose yourself completely in what you’re doing. You lose all sense of time; you don’t get thirsty or hungry; the whole world falls away, and it’s just you and your task.
What does this have to do with factory workers on assembly lines? Dr. Csikszentmihalyi interviewed dozens of people for Flow and his follow-up books, such as Finding Flow. Some of those people were factory employees who had found ways to gamify their jobs (although neither he nor they used that term) to make their work more interesting and fulfilling.
One worker made a game out of how many widgets he could process on his line in an hour. He was always challenging himself to break his own record—and as a result he was both the happiest and most enthusiastic worker in the entire factory.
The point is, if an assembly-line worker can gamify his job, you can find aspects of your job to turn into a continuous challenge for yourself.
Set yourself a goal, for example, how many survey responses you can gather. That’ll give you the challenge of improving your communications with your users, or the survey questions themselves or how you present them. When you get to an impressive number, set a new goal.
3. Get enthusiastic about the problem your product solves, or how it makes your users’ lives better.
Someone at your customers’ companies is enthusiastic, or at least feeling positive, about your products, even if you couldn’t care less about them. Find that user and ask her about it. Why is her job or life better thanks to your product?
Using our hypothetical scenario in the introduction, maybe you’ll visit a customer’s manufacturing plant, talk to the operations VP or the facilities manager, and find out that those sensors have reduced the number of steam-pipe accidents, which has reduced the number of worker injuries.
Now that you know this, you’re no longer just developing steam pipe sensors to monitor ambient temperature and blah, blah, blah. You’re helping to keep plant workers safe. Now that’s something to get enthused about.
If You’ve Tried Everything And Still Can’t Get Enthused About Your Product
Of course, you might find yourself in a situation where none of the above tactics work. Maybe you can’t find anything about your professional environment that motivates you. Then what?
Option 1: Ask to switch products.
Maybe your company develops a wide range of products, and there’s another line altogether in the organization that would inspire you.
Ask to be moved over to the product team handling that line. It’s worth a shot.
Option 2: Deal with it.
Maybe your best bet—at least for now—is to ride it out and do your best as the product manager for that product or product line that doesn’t really excite you.
Bright side: being in roles like this can offer lots of great opportunities for learning and character-building, which will serve you well for the rest of your career.
Option 3: Find a better situation.
If option 1 isn’t available to you, and option 2 just doesn’t seem possible, then you’ll probably have to admit you’ve made a mistake landing in this role in the first place. You might want to start looking for a new one.
As we’ve been pointing out throughout this post, a bored or uninspired product manager can tap into all sorts of hacks and strategies to find enthusiasm in her job. But for a product manager who’s totally miserable, it’s probably time to move on.
Have you found yourself managing uninspiring products in your career? How did you deal with it? Please share your stories or insights in the comments section.