Admit you do not know the answer

If you want to be a bad product manager, answer a question even when you’re not sure of an answer. You don’t want to look like you don’t know about your product. If a sales rep asks if the product includes a specific feature, and you think so but are not sure, just tell them it does; if you’re wrong, you can always add the feature later. Make assumptions about aspects of the product that you’re not quite clear on. If you had to check with other people in the company every time a question came up you weren’t sure about, you’d never be able to get anything done.

If you want to be a good product manager, do not be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Product managers should be informed and knowledgeable and have a good understanding of their product. However, there will always be questions that are asked — by sales representatives, by senior management, by customers — for which you are not positive on the answer. In those cases, rather than providing a half-sure, make sure you find out the right answer right away.

Most product managers who make the mistake of answering questions when they are not sure of the answer do not intentionally lie. They may want to protect their reputation to internal stakeholders. They may not want to hedge on an important feature that is crucial to a major sale. They may just not be close enough to the details of the product to really be informed enough to answer correctly.

So, for these reasons or more, when product managers should respond with “I don’t know,” they instead answer with confidence, and that answer is often wrong. Making assumptions or claims will inevitably backfire. There is an initial relief — that you answered the question with the response that people wanted to hear — but soon the facts will come out. Senior management will see you as either dangerously uninformed or attempting to intentionally mislead them. The customer will find that you in fact do not support the specific use case they were asking about. Another person who knows more about the product will show that you answered incorrectly because you did not have all of the information.

Why are product managers afraid of answering with “I don’t know?” It is most likely a consequence of the business environment, in which many people in many roles feel as if they need to know everything within their area. The fact is that no one knows everything. There will be gaps in knowledge of even the most experience and informed product manager.

What separates bad product managers from good product mangers is that bad ones assume they know the answer and never investigate to find out if they were correct, while good ones do not answer unless they are sufficiently informed, and if they are not, they make sure they get informed so they know the answer (and more).

Responding with just “I don’t know” is just as bad as providing a correct answer; instead, product managers should respond with “I don’t know, but I will find out the answer and let you know.” Follow up is key, and good product managers can use this as an opportunity to build their knowledge base so they do not have to respond with “I don’t know” next time. In fact, the goal should be to know well enough so that you don’t ever have to say “I don’t know” — that is what makes a great product manager.

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5 thoughts on “Admit you do not know the answer

  1. I’m going to be a product manager in the future so I must learn more about it. i think you will help me. Thanks in advance.

  2. As a team member, when I ask a product manager a question and they tell me they have to check with so-in-so, I send out my resume. That product manager just crossed over into the incompetent zone. Why?

    What the product manager is really saying is that he is not in the loop with the relevant stakeholders. This takes upfront, proactive action, effort, and time. The product manager has been too reactive to talk with the stakeholders. Do I get to send myself an email of our conversation and use that as an excuse for not getting my stuff done, or use that to become a victim. Hell, no.

    There is no reason why a product manager wouldn’t know the answer. The product manager is the answer. The team member doesn’t have a week for the product manager to make up their mind. The work comes to a complete stop, because this product manager is spending to much time in firefighting land.

    The idea that you wait for data before acting is wrong. No you decide. You could wait around until you had too much data, and your answer would be no better. A rational decision maker is an actor that decides, not an actor that knows. Those decisions are made on the basis of a stable preferences. In game theory, stable preference are the necessity. Those preferences only come from knowing your stakeholder’s preferences. Expecting perfect decisions is so waterfall, so unreasonable.

    A product manager better not be afraid to make a decision. If the product manager is afraid, then maybe that product manager’s resume needs to be out and about. The product manager is the CEO of the product, so act like a CEO. Anything that is getting in your way and preventing you from making a decision is a problem that the product manager must cure first, before anything else. Product managers make decisions even in the face of “I don’t know.” Decide, then get out of the way. And, if you are not going to decide, get the hell out of the way–go on vacation, because you certainly are not needed around here.

    The correctness of the decision is not as important as the perception that the product manager is a leader. Saying “I don’t know,” removes you from leadership.

  3. There are an infinite number of things the PM does not know. There are a finite number of things they must know – and a slightly larger number of finite things they must know how to look up. In the face of this, the best answer is “I’ll find out” even if you think you know the answer, followed by the question “why is that important to you?”

  4. I think part of the the problem is that many people are unaware of what the role of Product Management is and what a Product Manager is truly responsible for and should have the knowledge of.

    To Bob Corrigan’s point and perhaps partially to David Locke’s point, there are things that a Product Manager must know and must be able to provide an answer on without having to go do homework.

    However, there are a great many things that a Product Manager may not know and not having the knowledge of those items does not mean that they are incompetent or are not truly a leader.

    As an example, should the Product Manager know every low level detail of how the product functions? Sure, they should have an understanding at the high level of the feature/functionality, but there may be lower level details that they don’t have the answer to at their finger tips and need to go find the answer.

  5. It would be completely unreasonable to think that a product manager will know the answer to every question posed. David is right in that a product manager must be able to make a sound decision on the spot, but I disagree with the notion that the correct answer must be at the tip of our tongues.

    To Jeff’s point in the article, sometimes the best course of action is to decide to state that you don’t know. Obviously, as per Bob’s point, this should be followed up with some digging to find out why the answer is important, and if necessary, reaching into other stakeholder’s realms to get the right answer.

    In my experience (and I’m sure others in my position would agree), the depth and breadth of questions asked of me on a daily basis is astoundingly huge. Working for a start-up means that I’ve got to keep a finger on both the high level strategy of a suite of products as well as the status of each reported bug or requested feature. And no, I don’t have all of that information on instant recall. Instead, like any decent product manager, I know where to look and who to ask to find out.

    Interesting that this comment thread has picked up 3 years later. The article is just as relevant now (and I’m sure will be just as relevant in years to come). I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.


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