The Most Powerful Phrase in the Product Manager Vocabulary

Words have power. In product management, there is a phrase that is your secret power. Do not be afraid to use it.

The Most Powerful Phrase in the Product Manager Vocabulary

The most powerful phrase in product management isn’t something witty about product market fit, or positioning, or market segmentation. No, it is a very simple 3 or 4 words, depending on whether you employ a contraction or not.

It’s my fault

That is it. Simple, but very difficult. Perhaps one of your developers pushed a bad bit of code to production, or you have lost some customer data, or your procurement team failed to buy enough 1% tolerance resistors, and you are getting 100% failures in manufacturing. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. You are the product manager, you own it, and while you could play the blame game (and be correct), you shouldn’t. You swallow your pride. You accept responsibility. You message that up the organization, and to the outside world. And you take your lumps.

This does two things.

First, it forestalls the blame game. If you accept the blame, nobody can begin the second guessing that goes with a colossal screw up (or natural disaster, or other scenario) and you can begin the process of rectifying it.

Second, you provide air cover to the team you need to fix it. I guarantee you that if it was a developer oops, or some bad code that got through the QA and pre-production audit, the person who did it already feels like garbage. But by taking the heat, you have made a connection with this person that will last a lifetime. You took a bullet for them. They remember it. They may not follow you to your next gig, but they will remember the product manager who bellied up to the bar, who showed character, and accepted the responsibility.

Because we ARE responsible. Whether we placed the order for the defective parts, or cut the inventory to the bare bones to save a few bucks in floating inventory, or cut corners on the testing this one push to production or not, the buck stops at our desk.

There have been many times in my career when SHTF, and I was there in the breach, tons of pressure, and I could have pointed at the culprit, and said “not my fault, see what they did”. But I never did that. 100% yield loss on the floor? Shipped the wrong configuration? Shipped 6 million dollars worth of systems with a virus (because a technician loaded an infected internet radio app to play music while doing final test)? I owned it. And it was the right thing to do. It is why I am a product manager.

Side note: Regardless of how uncomfortable it is, how painful it is, how much negative attention it brought on me, I have never been fired for it. However, I suspect that had I not done the stand up thing, I would have at least two times in my career been terminated.

Embrace your inner Harry S. Truman. The buck stops on your desk.