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.