Thinking Like a Product Manager

You don’t need to be the smartest or most creative idea generator in your company. While Product Managers can be entrepreneurial, there is a significant difference between:

  • having creative ideas versus identifying which of the many creative ideas are worthwhile to pursue
  • conceptualizing a high-level idea (full of with assumptions and lack of details) versus organizing everyone and everything needed to execute an idea well

As a Product Manager, you’ll usually add more value by prioritizing worthwhile ideas and orchestrating their execution.

Product Managers are stewards of ideas. They embrace ideas from wherever they come, within or outside an organization, and are disciplined in validating which to pursue.

With keen intuition and deep understanding of customer needs, a Product Manager can, of course, still contribute ideas of their own. But few organizations are struggling for new ideas – most have too many potential ideas yet struggle to figure out which are most likely to be successful.

There is no one process for ideation. However, if you allow yourself to consider all options and ask tough questions, you can identify the most promising ideas. By explicitly employing a set of seemingly contradictory mindsets, you will be able to surface hidden flaws, build a body of data (whether supporting the idea or not), discover unexpected solutions, and build momentum and support.

As a Product Manager, you must remain objective. It is natural to become excited, swept up by others’ enthusiasm, and convinced of an idea’s validity (even though there’s little basis for it). Instead ensure ideas are objectively evaluated before committing to them. Be open to the possibility of being wrong, and ready to accept criticism without becoming defensive. Back up your recommendations with data, and be prepared to disagree with others. And once the decision is made to pursue an idea, do everything you can to improve its chances for success and show your commitment. However, also remain skeptical – you should always be gathering additional data, testing assumptions and, when warranted, recommending a change in course.

A Product Manager’s Ideation Framework

So how do you remain balanced and objective? How do you stay open to new possibilities, and able to excite others with their potential? You need to explicitly employ four powerful mindsets – as highlighted by the following framework.

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 5.07.06 PM

Consider a simple matrix with two axes. On the horizontal axis is a continuum – on the far right is imagine. Be open to all potential solutions and suspend any long-held beliefs (“sacred cows”). Don’t judge, or worry about limitations such as resourcing, not yet. On the far left is critique. Conversely, you need to challenge and pressure-test ideas. Understand the opportunity, risks, and effort, based on what the data tells you.

On the vertical axis is another continuum. At one end, you are looking to broaden. Entertain and investigate multiple approaches simultaneously. Brainstorm, discover and share data; explore parallel paths of inquiry and make sure not to adopt any one particular approach prematurely. At the other end, is focus. Focus is essential once you have decided to pursue a path, allowing you to deepen your understanding and build momentum. Avoid distractions, misalignment, analysis-paralysis, or constant revisiting of the options you have already dismissed.

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger” – Abbie Hoffman

Each of the resulting four quadrants represents a specific mindset you can employ. Each – imagining possibilities and brainstorming options (Explorer) yet knowing when to focus and motivate a team towards a goal (Evangelist), or gathering data to explore new opportunities (Analyst) yet asking the hard questions to eliminate less promising ideas (Challenger) – are essential to the ideation process.

You may find yourself flipping from one mindset to the next throughout the product cycle; you may even appear to contradict yourself. For instance, you might be evangelizing a product idea but at the same time challenging assumptions and finding reasons not to pursue it. Pay close attention to your own natural decision-making process and biases, and make it a practice to employ other mindsets. Look too at the mindsets of others involved in the decision-making process, as you may need to provide balance by applying a contrary mindset. Small organizations, for example, commonly have a strong single-minded visionary as a founder; someone with the ability to imagine powerful new product solutions and get others excited in their vision. However, they may be overly-optimistic and scarce on details. You may need to use the analyst and challenger mindsets more often as a counterbalance, to ground their enthusiasm. Don’t think of it as creating conflict but helping the founder by adding rigor to their ideas and providing the data that may support or refute their idea.

In the next couple of blog posts I will introduce each mindset in turn, with actionable examples, and finally, pitfalls and common biases that undermine objectivity and can lead to suboptimal outcomes.

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