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Product Owners: It’s Time to Rethink Reactive Product Management

Today’s post is going to be a short one, but my goal is to leave you with some points to ponder, rather than discussing each of them in depth.

One of the oldest truths when it comes to being successful in product management is to be proactive rather than reactive. But is there a time when you should let conventional wisdom go in the face of opportunity? Absolutely. And chances are good that you’re already doing it.

But before we go any further, let’s talk a bit about the differences between the two.

The Proactive Approach

As a product owner, you’re most likely going to prefer the proactive approach. Being proactive means that you know your goals ahead of time and you work toward them. You prepare for the unexpected as best as possible. You are in control of the situation because you’ve created the situation. The proactive approach is specific, measured, and considered to be best practice for good reason.

It stands in stark contrast to being reactive, where you’re quite literally reacting to your surroundings. In a reactive approach, it becomes far too easy to mix signal with noise. This is the danger of planning your next move based largely on what your competitor just did.

In Greg Geracie’s excellent book, Take Charge Product Management, he provides a checklist of important parts for a successful, proactive approach. While the entire list is worth reading, there are a few boxes that stand out above the rest:

  • Three year product vision
  • Defined product milestones
  • Product decision matrix
  • Product launch plans

Each of these is focused on the idea of “plan to work and work the plan”, where a road map of the product’s life is put into place and followed to the letter. The proactive approach centers around focus, and making certain that every step along the way is done to benefit part of the plan. It’s the practice of using Murphy’s Law as a planning tool. These are all great practices!

But there’s still room for being reactive.

The Reactive Approach

Being reactive is most often seen as a bad thing. Reactive means that you’re ignoring any plan that you put into place, and instead letting the actions of others dictate your next move. While being proactive is certainly looked upon as best practice, I believe that reactive has (to an extent) gotten a bad rap.

Why? Here are some examples of positive, reactive behavior:

  • The genesis of almost every product is reactive. Otherwise you’re solving problems that people don’t really have.
  • As a product owner, you do user testing. Chances are that you find pain points that you didn’t know about so you change them. That’s reactive.
  • When single points of failure appear in your project, you react to change them. Better planning won’t always prevent them from surfacing.

But most important of all is a final point – Allowing yourself or your team to be reactive helps you spot opportunity. It opens the door to different types of thinking that aren’t necessarily considered to be good for proactive planning.


Like everything else in business, there are times when your gut has to be allowed to challenge the data. Sometimes you just have to attempt what you feel is right, even if you slaughter a few of the sacred cows in the process. So examine your planning process and allow some time for being reactive. Find a way to strike the balance between being proactive about your plan, but reactionary enough to move swiftly when opportunity arises.

The next time that you sit with your team to roadmap a feature, take some time for the “what if’s”. But we’re not talking about what if in the Murphy’s Law sense, where you’re planning for the negative. Instead, what if your biggest competitor decides to close their doors? What if they stop supporting a product that people love? What opportunities will these open for you and how are you going to take advantage of them?

Opening your processes to being reactive is opening a portal to opportunity.

Image: Hoppo Bumpo via Flickr

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