Dealing with Product Failure: Emotional Resilience
Her experience with product "failure" and how she learned to turn a negative into a positive
How we can look at missteps as learning experiences
Tips on being resilient in product management
product, failure, people, leader, fail, burnout, susanna, coaching, happening, realize, talk, career, called, management, tips, book, deal, helps, resources, resilient
Welcome to Product voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered on our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of great product management.
Hello, and welcome to product voices. So do you know what the game of baseball and product management have in common? Failure? That's right, we fail a lot. So the best batting average in major league baseball history is 366, Ty Cobb had a lifetime batting average of 366. And that tops the records. So what a 366 batting average means is that he got to hit 36.6% of the times that he went up to bat. It also means that he did not get a hit 63.4% of the time. So over 63% of the time, he failed in what he was trying to accomplish. We fail a lot in product management to a feature doesn't resonate. A project goes off the rails, our revenue or usage or retention numbers aren't what we forecasted or hoped for, as in baseball where no one bats 1000 gets a hit every single time. We don't get a hit in product management every time either. But we really need to redefine failure, we need to realize that through this quote unquote failure, we learn we grow we become better. Emotional resilience is paramount for us in product management. My guest has found a great way to navigate this in her career and teaches others how to become resilient news mistakes or miss hits as a way to learn and grow. Suzanna Lopez is a product coach who helps founders and leaders in early stage businesses develop and scale high performing product orgs. She coaches product managers to accelerate their growth and multiply their impact and advises leaders on product or design goal setting and product division. And on Phaedo. She's the director of product focused on fighting identity fraud. There, she grew the biometrics line of business from zero to over $30 million in revenue per year. Suzanna, thank you so much for joining me.
Hi, I'm very excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
You bet. I'm looking forward to the conversation. So tell me about your experience with product failure,
I love how we get straight into it. I mean, it's been a journey to put it, you know, to put it mildly, I come from a very high achieving family, you know, let's get deep into the feelings. And, you know, it was always expected that everyone would do their best and try really, really hard. And so my mom was a big fan, a fan of the Apollo 13 mission statement of like, failure is not an option. And so I grew up with that kind of mentality. And that meant that, you know, I always believed that if I tried really hard, I would always succeed. And that's not always the case in product. And so I had a few bruises here and there. And I also like that led to me not letting my team fail, which is, you know, not ideal, you're starving the team of opportunities to learn. Later on, as I read more about product and figure it out, you know, we should be failing fast. And an early that then led to other stories of like me burning out. And eventually I kind of settled on this mantra around trying to separate a little bit, my sense of failure and the products failure. So that's what I call the you didn't fail your product did. So you know, these three phases in my life are very distinct. That, you know, like just taking a step back with the way that you've introduced me. It's like, Oh, my God, she's done all these things. And it paints like my career, and my LinkedIn profile in a way that, you know, it just talks about the achievements, but there's this shadow career that we all have, where there's like so many failures that punctuate all of those successes as well, you know, and I feel like as a community, we would really benefit from being more open about how there's these two careers that are happening at the same time. So like, just to give you a couple of examples, as you say, like oh, yeah, I grew a line of business from like, basically no, no revenue to 30 million. That is an insane journey, but it also included things like the first ever feature I built was like hated by everyone, the first project that I that I built, like a bit exceeding was just only used by one client, it was a special like, turns out, no one else wanted it. Other things around like something one of the main products that is driving that 30 million is like commoditizing. Now, so it's like, it's it's no good, right? It's had that, that, that life of maturity, but now it needs evolving again. And so, you know, I think we all need to be more open and talk about failure of how it's, it's an integral part of our careers.
I love your attitude, right? I mean, you, you obviously have have learned to deal with it, which I'm gonna, I'm gonna ask you to get into just in a moment. But one of the things you said, which I think is really, really important, so I want to just bring that back up. You say you didn't fail your product did, right. I think that is so so important for us in product management. And it's interesting, because we had a previous episode. And Nicole Danes was was my guest, and she's a product leader, a company called Rosie and she does some mentoring and that sort of thing. And she and I also talked about a similar idea of not assigning yourself worth to your product success or failure, you know, and, and the fact that you came from a high achieving family, and you're a high achiever, and most people in product and tech probably have a similar background, they were athletes and high achievers, they came from a high achieving family, you know, it's hard for us to deal with that. And so I think that's a really, really important one that you've you've called out is, look, sometimes our products don't succeed the way we want them to, it doesn't make us a bad person, it doesn't make us even a bad product manager, it just means that, you know, something didn't click right. And all the moving parts didn't come together at the right time. I think that's a really important point you made.
That's right. And that builds your ability to pattern match, which is essentially what a career in product is. Yeah, figuring out like, why didn't it work this time? Okay. Can I predict a kind of failure next time?
Exactly. I love that. Okay, so tell me a little bit how you learn to deal with this. I mean, again, you've got a great attitude. Now you've you've you've gotten to a point where you know, you can you can laugh about it, you can realistically reflect on what's gone well, and what hasn't. So how did you learn to deal with it?
I mean, the first step, in every crisis point is like realizing that you weren't dealing with it before. You know, it took me breaking like twice and like having two bad episodes of the first one close to burnout on the second one definitely burning out. Where I was like, you know, what, actually, my relationship with my work is not working. I think realizing deeply, what was it that was making me break is exactly what you were just mentioning, my sense of self worth. And my products were basically the same. And I was conflating product failure with personal failure. And so a lot of the themes that you just mentioned, I think just sensing that this was happening was the first step and building that resilience. I think, ironically, the main thing that helped me process this was doing a talk about this, in which I get on stage and like, talk about exactly these topics. And when people saw that document, like Oh, my God, you're so good at resilience. And I was like, no, no, you have no idea. This is therapy. For me, this is me talking to an audience, telling myself what I need to hear to be able to cope with this. So that was a really important step in in reframing things in the way that I told that story to others. And the way that I told that story to myself.
That's great, that's great. And, you know, it's, the more we talk about it, the the better it's going to get, and frankly, others are going to, to, you know, realize it they're not alone, they're going to show us or you you know that that you're not alone. And I think that's that's really important. So, you know, again, I mentioned a little bit about redefining failure, or again, looking at it, you know, like you've said, giving, giving us giving the team an opportunity to learn right? failure or quote unquote, failure really should be looked at as a learning experience. So how have you been able to find the positive things when things don't go as you would like?
So the way I would answer that is by thinking about what is stopping you from being able to diagnose what was good, what was bad in the learning, and really, it's that often we get our feelings about ourselves getting away. Right? So in the moment, it felt like everything was lost, it felt like I had completely failed and that meant that I wasn't able to look at it dispassionately and analytically about actually what went wrong. I lost my ability to rationally think through it and analyze it right. And it's only when you go you know, I'm not my part marked. This screwed up fine, what is it that I can learn now that I'm, I was able to then take back that step and go back to the point we were making earlier about the pattern matching, like, realize that this is yet another piece of evidence that helps me predict that failure before it happens. But in one particular example, like I had validated that the problem existed, I had validated that people could use that solution since the solution like feasibility, but I hadn't validated that it existed for enough people or frequently enough, and, and that didn't even occur to me, because I'd never seen that pattern before. And so, you know, your experience, like massively influences your ability to diagnose failure, like, there's only so much you can do risk and predict. And so every time, things don't go as well as you would hope, it just gives you that another weapon to diagnose it and prevent in the future. And really, this can only really happen when there's psychological safety at work. Like, no one's going to say, Oh, my God, Suzanne, are you so ugly? Could you not see that, then they're, like, supportive instead. And often, we get that from others, but we don't get that to ourselves. And that's really when it gets ugly is that we might be kind to others, but we're not kind to ourselves. And then, you know, we spiral into the, oh, my God, it was my fault the whole way. And then you lose, you lose the opportunity to learn because you're too busy blaming yourself.
Yeah, I think that last one really good point. All good points. But that last point, I think we all are probably harder on ourselves than than others in our whole life. Work included. And so one of the ways that I've tried to think about it before I, you know, have this really negative self talk about like, How in the world did you just do that, JJ, is would I say that to somebody else? Would I say that to Susanna across the room, you know, or somebody I'm working with? No, I would never say the kind of negative things that I say to myself to someone else. Because you wouldn't you wouldn't be that blunt, you wouldn't be that rude. And so if you wouldn't say it to somebody else, why would you say it to yourself? Why would you think it about yourself?
It's like, Am I really rude to myself right now?
Yeah, yeah. And it's so easy to do. And so it's, it's really an interesting, just little trick that, you know, even after I say something ridiculous to myself, I say, Oh, come on, you know, you wouldn't say that to someone else. So why say it to yourself. So I think that's a really, really great, great advice that you gave. So there's there folks out there listening who, you know, they fall into this, and probably every one of them listening falls into this. So So what are some tips that you have? Like, like, again, I love what you've said so far. But someone who's like, Okay, this sounds great. But what do I do? Right? Like, how are some how can I actually do something to help me become more resilient in the product manager role? What tips would you have for folks?
Sure. Before I give you some tips, I do want to emphasize like, why this is even important. Like why should you even care? I think what a lot of people don't realize is product management, career growth is going to come from more and more risk and more and more complexity. And with that comes more likelihood to fail. And so if you don't have the ability to deal with failure eventually happening, right? Like you might have a stellar track record, while complexity is low, and then suddenly, you're thrown into the deep end and things, excuse my language, go tits up. Really being able to tackle that and having the toolkit that helps you tackle big risk and the uncertainty and the failure that comes from that is the thing that will help you on your career. Because if you don't have that toolkit, you might burn out like I did earlier in your career, and you might, you know, walk away from product altogether when maybe you could have an amazing stellar career if you had put in the effort to be kinder to yourself and all of these things around resilience. And also like being scared of taking the next job because you're afraid that you're not going to do well. All those things kind of hold us back. So I do want to emphasize that this is not just about like quality of life and preventing burnout, but it's also about enabling you to be bold with your career choices and enabling you to succeed in the next step. But answering your question directly. So in terms of tips, I think the first thing is psychological safety like this is a must have like you are a leader and you need to model leadership even if you're not a product lead per se like if you're a product manager, you are a leader in a way and you need to model psychologically safe behavior in which you're, you know, celebrating failure and learning and COURAGING and, you know, sometimes top down, that doesn't really happen. So I would encourage you to challenge that, and maybe go find some other company that really cares about it. The second thing would be to start being objective about it. So when we are tangling up the personal and the product, one thing I found that worked for me was to separate the success metrics I attributed to myself and the success metrics I attribute to my product. And so for myself, I'm thinking about impact on the world progressing, progressing on that career ladder impact on others in my teaching, and all the things like that, and for my product is going to be the the usual KPIs, then it creates that really clear separation that's really important to help you not get confused between the two. And then being like your products, worst critic, just saying, my product sucks, because x, y, and Zed like this will help you create emotional distance, while being really kind to yourself, and being really respectful and allowing yourself to feel what you need to feel, and giving yourself personal psychological safety, while being really terrible towards your product that creates a separation and emotional distance. And just generally, like the things we were talking about, every time you fail, like realize that this is you acquiring another pattern matching tool toolkit to help you understand and prevent that failure from happening later. That's just a reframing thing. So those would be my four tips. emotional safety, separating product success metrics, from personal success metrics, being your products worth critic, while being really kind to yourself, and then treating product failure as a way to sharpen your failure diagnosis tool, those would be my four.
Those are amazing tips. I love that. So how often does this topic come up in your work as a product coach? How do you take people through that journey that you're talking about?
It's interesting, because it actually appears in the skies. You know, no one is coming to me go like I don't know how to deal with public failure. Let me think there's been like some examples recently, like one of my clients had been promoted recently to being a product leader. And she was like, How do I know this is the right strategy? And what data can I use? And like? What evidence do I have that this is actually going to happen as a trend and just really obsessing with having 100% certainty that it was a strategy that would work, and that is really someone that is not yet comfortable with the leap of faith, that strategy is, and someone that was paralyzed by a huge amount of analysis? Because effectively they were, they were afraid of failing. Another person didn't realize they were a perfectionist. They were really overly attached to like, perfect book theory. So they would go around the company and go like, Oh, you're not doing that, right? You're not doing that. Right. This is how Kagan says you should do it. This is how Melissa Parrish should do it, though the will. And it's, and it's this tension of wanting to do everything by the book, because you're afraid of failing if you take a leap of faith. And then And then the third example, was someone and this is actually really common is someone that never shared anything that was work in progress. Oh, wow. Let that sink in. I wonder if you know, some people in the audience I was resonate with, I was working with this person for three months. And only at the at the end of those three months, they share with me any work in progress. And I had to like mirror it to them were like, Hey, have you realized this? We've been talking about, you know, more meta things, and they were so afraid even to share with me and they didn't realize this, right? You people do things unconsciously that they did, they just wouldn't share things in progress. And so our fear of failure often manifests in these like, overly tense and closed and defensive mechanisms we put in place. And so that's how it kind of appears. How I help is one to help people even see that they're doing this because they don't realize and then get them to reflect, hey, why is it that you're feeling paralyzed and not able to commit to the strategy or take that leap of faith? Why is it that you were overly obsessed with the idealized way of doing things? And why don't you do Make a bet or why have you never shared working progress and get people to go like, Oh my God, it's true. Like, I'm doing this because I'm afraid. And then once you you do that you go like, Okay, well, really what am I afraid of? And like, how do I address that? And, and then it's the work like that is actually technical around like improving their skills, and and improving their confidence and their ability to do the job. And that gives people like a better footing to then just say, You know what, I'm gonna take a leap of faith, I'm okay, even if I fail, it's fine. But yeah, it's it's insidious like that. It's not always obvious, and people don't realize it's happening.
Those are wonderful tips. And you're absolutely right. I mean, I had a couple of wow moments as you were talking, you know, do I share work in progress enough? You know, and am I always trying to be perfect in terms of, you know, some expert that says something, right, so that's as their amazing tips. And I think, you know, folks can really, you know, self examine and see if they're going through that or see if they see those, those red flags, if you will. So that's awesome. In terms of product leaders, so those folks out there who are who are coaches, who are mentors, who are product leaders leading a team, how would you advise them that they can best support their teams in dealing with product failure and in building resilient teams? Yeah, I think
when it comes to product leadership, the number one thing that I'm not sure every product leader always realizes is that the job becomes about the people you're managing. And essentially, the job becomes about being a coach. And I don't mean that from the point of view of like the work that I do, but really about coaching those individuals to high performance, and sometimes just to competence, the way that Kagan puts it is that once you become a leader, your job is to get your report promoted. And so when you take that stance of actively developing the talent that is reporting to you, then you take a stake in helping them also deal with failure, that is part of your responsibility, that is your job to help them go through that journey. From a more practical point of view, I would say like more of what we talked about, so far model psychologically safe behavior, like zero tolerance to toxicity, like, call people out when, when they're being awful and be like, That is not acceptable, right? Maybe don't do it in public. But give that feedback really quickly. Create an environment where people do feel safe and are able to experiment. The other one is around vulnerability. I would say if you're comfortable, I would really encourage you, as a leader to share your own failure stories I early, I shared a few of mine, that go deep and like talk about what it made you feel like what you learn what you did to keep saying, like, for me, it was it was some of the things we talked about earlier. But for you, it might have been something different. And that will be inspiring for your reports. And it will give them the permission to leave live, what they need to live when they go through those failure stories themselves. And you will inspire them to take better action and be kinder to themselves. And, you know, if you screw up as a leader, like admit it to say, Hey, I was wrong here, I'm failing in front of you live. You know, like showing how people can recover from from failure it live in the moment is just as powerful as telling stories of how you, you dealt with it in the past. And all of those is really just modeling behavior and taking an active role in in coaching and developing your team members.
Yeah, great advice, great advice for leaders. It's all about, you know, showing the the behavior that that you would like in them. Love that. So you mentioned that you have done a talk on this before. I've seen it. It's it's an awesome video, we'll link to that on product voices.com. And in the show notes. And obviously you've you've spent some time coaching and mentoring others and you yourself are a resource on this topic. But what other resources have you found valuable as you were building resiliency in yourself and with with your teammates? So at the time
when I was going through this the first time I didn't really maybe the resources existed. I didn't reach out to them because I didn't realize what was happening. It was only when everything came crashing down and I was like oh my god, I should do something about this. I did have mental health coaching with a company called Sanctus. They do this I believe in the UK but there will be other mental health coaching companies that you might have as a benefit in your company. There's quite a big trend now on mental health as a benefit. So if you do have that, I would encourage you to take advantage of that because it helps you work through things before they explode. But lately, there's actually much more on the subject. And there's a lot of resources that maybe some of the audience might find interesting. So autopsy is this great graveyard of failed startups. And you can look up all the startups that have failed over the last X years and what happened and what didn't go to plan. And not only is it humbling, but also, I don't know it just democratizes access to failure stories with stories, which I think is quite quite interesting and fun. Then the other thing that I would suggest, in terms of resources would be a book called burnout by two sources called Emily and Amelia. And they've created this handbook that helps you cope and recover from and prevent burnout. It's got a bit of a feminist angle to it, which is not to everyone's taste. But it does have some very, very actionable insight there. And even just really clear definitions. Like my favorite thing from that book is the definition of burnout is caring too much about something for too long. Isn't that wonderful?
Yeah, that's good.
I read that I was like, Oh, my God, that was me. And, yeah, the last thing I would recommend, so autopsy, the website, burnout, the book. And then the last one would be another book, Matt lemaise. Product Management in practice, he just released a second edition. And he is one of the kindest, most emotionally intelligent writers in the product management space that I know. He just tells it to you like it is and it tells you to you like how it's possibly going to go wrong and how to deal with it. And it's a very realistic book, as opposed to maybe the more theoretical idealistic, this is how it would appear in the ether. This is literally in practice. So in the title, and I think, when you write this, honestly, it also helps people reading going like, Oh, it's okay, like other people are also struggling. Other people have also faced failure. Other people have also tried this framework, and it didn't work. So it's less of an aspirational book, and much more of a practical kind book, which might be helpful as well,
Susanna Lopez, this has just been an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Being transparent and vulnerable about all of your learnings along the way, and how you've helped others. I've loved hearing from you. I certainly have had a couple of light bulb moments that that I will take, and hopefully improve the way I deal with failure. But thank you so much for joining me and thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure. And if anyone wants to reach out and chat, anything failure, we're not failure. You can send me a DM on Twitter. They're, they're open or reach out through the website. I'm sure both will be linked. I'd love to hear from you.
Awesome. Yeah, please do connect with Susanna. Her LinkedIn, Twitter will be on there as well as her website. So visit product voices.com for that. Again, Susanna, thank you for joining me and thank you all for listening to product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product voices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.
Talk at Jam: you didn’t fail, your product did https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69Tb_4-zyhM&ab_channel=MakingJam
Matt Le May’s new book Product Management in Practice, 2nd edition. It’s a kind take on the role and full of emotional intelligence. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Product-Management-Practice-Practical-Tactical/dp/1098119738/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0
https://www.getautopsy.com/ a great resource of failed start ups. Founded by Maryam Mazraei.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Burnout-secret-solving-stress-cycle/dp/1785042076 book on burn out by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
https://sanctus.io/ Mental health coaching at work.
Connect with Susana
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