Why It's Important For Product Managers To Quit

Posted By - Geoff Watts


What skills make a good product owner?

A good Product Owner takes calculate gambles

A great Product Owner knows when to walk away

Product Mastery: From Good to Great Product Ownership

I was listening to a podcast [1] the other day where former professional poker player Annie Duke was advising us all to embrace our inner quitter and get better at walking away and I regularly find myself advising Product Managers to quit earlier and more often.

Siobhan O’Keeffe ran 18 miles on a broken leg

Duke tells the story of Siobhan O’Keeffe who ran 18 miles of the London Marathon despite breaking her fibula (sorry if you’re eating your breakfast!). She also explains how this is far from an uncommon occurrence and that the main reason is that we don’t see how far we have come as a success but rather the fact that we see the distance to the finish line (no matter how far) as a failure.

Cognitive Biases Make it Hard For Product Managers to Quit

Of course there is also the sunk cost fallacy (one of the first cognitive biases that a poker player needs to master). Siobhan had trained for months, invested her time, energy and made countless sacrifices to get to mile 6. Walking away would feel like all of that was for nothing.

A poker player comes to realise that what we have already bet is no longer our money; we can’t get that back. Just like the time and energy already invested in the marathon project. Each decision should be based on the here and now, not the past investments.

Another factor that comes into consideration here is temporal discounting – the fact that we tend to diminish the value of future events in favour of the immediate future. I might really like the idea of getting myself to a point where I could run the London Marathon but the short-term lure of a night at the pub with my friends and kebab on the way home is much more tempting.

So Siobhan might be conscious of the long-term risk to her health of continuing with a broken leg but that’s for “future Siobhan” to worry about. “Present Siobhan” still has the chance of the great feeling of completing the London Marathon.

These same factors make it difficult for Product Managers to quit. They may have invested a lot of time in convincing people to support an idea or sponsor a feature or release. They may have invested so much of their energy and passion in an idea they think will be great. It’s really difficult to walk away.

Of course, this article could simply be a rationalisation to help me explain why I am quitting my association with Scrum Alliance. But I don’t think so.

Quit and Grit – Companions or Contradictions?

This is not an excuse to be a serial quitter though. We would likely not achieve anything amazing if we didn’t stick with some decisions even though things look tough. Indeed Duke, talks about betting on decisions that have a low probability of success but the upside makes that decision the right decision.

You may be familiar with Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit and Duke doesn’t belittle the importance of perseverance. It’s just that it can be just as difficult for Product Managers to quit as it is for them to walk away and there is a lot more positive press about grit than there is about quit. It’s even considered a negative word and character trait in general.

And yet we need to make it easier as Product Managers to quit because we will be saying “no” a lot more than we will be saying “yes” if they want to be successful. We will be experimenting a lot and cutting the experiments that don’t work quickly. This requires self-awareness and discipline.

As Duke says “Quit and Grit are two sides of the same coin”. Having the courage to take the calculated gambles and the courage to walk away are both essential for Product Leaders to build successful products.

How Can We Make It Easier as Product Managers to Quit?

1. Try to remove emotion and think logically.

Product management is very emotional and trying to remove emotion is a constant struggle. Remind yourself that what has gone has gone and the decision now is whether to invest the next amount of time/money/energy/hope, against the likely return based on the information you have now

2. Separate the behaviour from your identity.

This might sound strange but we tend to attach what we do to who we are. Therefore if we quit a habit, a behaviour, a course of action, it can feel like we are quitting part of ourselves. Take a moment to remind yourself they are two different things and it will be a little easier.

3. Quit before you think you should. 

Because many of us have an in-built aversion to quitting, we tend to “paint red flags green”. We ignore the warning signs or the evidence that we don’t want to see. Perhaps ask a trusted advisor “what am I possibly ignoring here?” And do this earlier than you think you need to. This could be quitting a product or quitting a feature and cutting it from the Product Backlog. As Duke says:

“If you feel like you’ve got a close call between quitting and persevering, it’s likely that quitting is the better choice.”


If you would like some help with your focus and doing more of the right things and stopping the things that aren’t helping you achieve your goals, get in touch.

[1] And the podcast I was listening to can be found here

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