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Product management lessons from The Big Lebowski

One of the curses of being obsessed with building great products is you start to see parallels everywhere. For me, that means I start to see insights into building great products in my favorite movies. Here are a few from the Dude and his compadres.

Identify your core problem.

“Jeff Lebowski, the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire.”

One of the most common mistakes I’ve made in my own career is treating a symptom instead of finding the cause. All too often, a bug or feature request appears uninvited and pees on your rug. The natural first reaction is to get the rug cleaned and mop your floor (and these are prudent and logical things to do!), but the real question to ask is, why was my rug micturated upon? For The Dude, it was because a millionaire’s wife owed money all over town, including to certain filmmakers. Your reason will likely be different and far less salacious.

Find your Jeff Lebowski. The other Jeffrey Lebowski. The millionaire.

Make sure your product meets a customer need.

“It’s like Lenin said. You look for the person who’ll benefit and uh, you know…”

So now you know the problem you’re trying to solve, but does this problem matter to your customers? Building a better mousetrap is pointless if everyone is happy with the current mousetrap. The best way to figure this out is simple. Talk to your customers. There are three things you want to gather from a customer conversation:

  1. Do you have this problem?
  2. Would our proposed solution solve this problem for you?
  3. How much would you pay to have this problem solved?

If your customers have a problem, and your solution solves that problem, but they aren’t willing to pay for it, then it’s not a problem worth solving.

Make sure you understand the answers to all of the questions above. Otherwise, much like Donny, you’re out of your element.

Be an expert in your field.

“Obviously, you’re not a golfer.”

It will happen multiple times in a product manager’s career. You will take over a product, or you will break ground on a new product. Maybe you take a new job, or maybe your current company is trying to expand its focus. The reason doesn’t matter. When a new product comes to you, it’s your job to become the expert.

This is an underrated but vital aspect of a product manager’s job. In every meeting with your team and with upper management, you should be the expert in the room. You should know the competitive landscape, the extent of the customer problem you’re trying to solve, the typical profile of a customer that has this problem, the reasons why your company is positioned to meet this need, all of it.

The research and preparation required for this will eat up a lot of your time, especially early in a project. But if anyone ever says the equivalent of “Obviously, you’re not a golfer” to you in a meeting, you’re failing.

Don’t be a golfer.

Be prepared to amend your plan.

“New shit has come to light.”

If you’re building product in a smart way, new shit will constantly be coming to light. Your customers will tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing well all along the way. Always remember your goal is to solve the problems of customers, not to completely realize a design concept.

Because sometimes you throw a ringer for a ringer, and then you find out she kidnapped herself. Not everyone will be privy to the new shit, so it’s up to you to adjust your plan. That’s what they pay you for.

Don’t fall in love with a solution. Fall in love with the problem.

“It’s this rug I had, it really tied the room together.”

You could argue all of The Dude’s problems in this movie stem from the fact that he was too in love with one particular solution. You could also argue the rug itself wasn’t even a good solution to his problem. It’s just the one he had on hand.

Customers will always attempt to solve their own problems, and they will be anxious to explain these solutions to you when you ask. But each customer has a limited view of the landscape and a limited amount of time, energy and capital to invest. As a product manager, it’s your job to intimately understand the problem and how it affects all of your customers. Understanding the problem in this way will hopefully lead you to the best solution instead of a passable one.

It’s understandable that sometimes, all The Dude wants is his rug back. It’s your job to show him a better solution when one exists.

Have a perspective.

Bunny: "Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist."
Dude: "Ahh, that must be exhausting.”

Believing in nothing is exhausting. Reacting to customer requests, upper management demands and newly discovered bugs is also exhausting. How do you avoid this? Have a perspective on your product, and stick to it even in difficult times.

You will never have a shortage of good ideas for your product. Having a clear perspective on what problems you’re trying to solve and who your core customer is will give you a framework for those ideas. If it’s a great idea that doesn’t help your customer solve their problems, then it’s not work you should do.

You have lots of competitors. Don’t get complacent.

“How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?"

If you’re building a product that has any value in the world, chances are you’re not the only one. Providing great solutions as quickly as possible is important. Time to market and the quality of your solutions are the levers you can pull when it comes to your competition. Can you do it faster? Can you do it better?

Your Karl Hungus is out there somewhere. He’s working in the shadows, always ready to step in and fix the cable. You can’t afford to lose focus. Keep your customers down on the farm by providing great solutions in a timely manner.

Failure is part of the job.

“Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.”

As a product manager, it’s your job to talk to customers, research the competition, compile feedback and make calls about how your product should evolve. But even with all of that data at your command, it is very easy to fail.

In product management, much as in life, failure is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, if you aren’t taking risks and failing regularly, you probably aren’t doing your job. Product management is about solving problems for customers in the best possible ways, and it’s impossible to find the best possible way without finding some dead ends. The important thing to remember is you must learn from your failure. Why didn’t this approach work? What went wrong? How can you be better the next time?

Failure is a part of life, and failure is often a necessary step towards success. Appreciate it for what it is, and look forward to the day when you get to eat the bear.

That’s not some kind of eastern thing, either. Far from it.

This post originally appeared on Medium.