Identify and Mitigate Risks with a Challenger Mindset

Previously I introduced the four mindsets in the Product Manager’s Ideation Framework and discussed the “Explorer” and “Analyst” mindsets. Today we’re introducing the Challenger Mindset.

The challenger mindset shines a light on contrary data, flaws and hidden assumptions, helping you to preempt potentially serious issues and make sure you are putting your attention on the greatest opportunities. As a challenger, your goal is to seek out what can go wrong, and not be distracted even when everything looks overwhelming positive.

Look for gaps in your understanding and for cognitive biases. Approach each idea as simply a hypothesis that requires validation or disproving. You’ll poke holes in some bad ideas, but you’ll also strengthen good ideas. You may identify risks that can be easily mitigated or raise an alarm when you identify potential downsides which require more thoughtful decision making.

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Adopt a challenger mindset by starting with some of these activities:

Approach ideas as hypotheses requiring validation – Do not assume that ideas, no matter how compelling, are sure to be worthwhile. This holds true whether you are prioritizing small feature enhancements or embarking on entirely new product initiatives. And it’s true even when the idea comes from someone highly respected and more senior than you. Stress-test all ideas, gathering data, validating results and looking for new insights. Do this frequently and throughout the product ideation and development lifecycle; not just the once to get sign-off approvals.

The Psychology behind a hypothesis-driven approach

Switch to hypothesis and test mode and you can help offset any personal attachment you have to an idea. Rather than staking your reputation on being right, or feel it’s not in your best interests to disagree, your approach should be seen as that of making judicious use of scarce resources and making sure to guide the business to success. Oh, and being “wrong” is okay – if you learn something new.


Listen to dissent. Ask “why not?” – New ideas can seem exciting, and their potential promising. When they’re enthusiastically endorsed by a majority (“groupthink”), those who disagree or are less convinced will often stay silent (or be silenced). Pretty soon, all the data presented seem to support pursuing the idea (“confirmation bias”). Remain objective and assume whole groups can be wrong. Seek out and embrace dissenters – peers, stakeholders, or customers that appear unsupportive, or even negative. Avoid defensiveness or dismissing concerns out of hand. Respect the value of diverse personalities, skills, and experience. Try to understand their objections and integrate these into your evaluation. Seek to prove them right, not wrong.

And don’t take to heart everything they say – they usually aren’t attacking you personally. Their opinions are amongst many deserving consideration, so don’t be unduly swayed. And if you happen to win them over in making the idea a success, then all the better!

“New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done; 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing; 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!” – Arthur C. Clarke

Communicate negative outcomes and concerns internally – Don’t be afraid to diplomatically create conflict by challenging others, or thoughtfully communicate bad news. If you don’t confront issues that may undermine the success of the product and, at large, the business, you’re not doing your job. Share all data and insights you have, so others can confirm or challenge your conclusions. During product updates and in decision-making forums, don’t simply present your initiative in a positive light so that it will be approved. True, your role is to gather support, but include assumptions, scenarios, and risks that might paint a less rosy picture so that sound decisions can be made.

Focus, Prioritize, Cut – As a Product Manager, you’ll often be blessed to work around creative people. In such an environment, there’s no shortage of problems to solve and ideas to pursue. As much as deciding what to do, your challenge is also to decide what not to do. Be careful not to waste time revisiting and discussing the same ideas repeatedly, or exploring left-field ideas that have little to do with your current business priorities or target customers Prioritize the ideas with best potential but also explicitly deprioritize the rest. Add them to a backlog for possible consideration in the future.


How to say “no” nicely

⇒ “Remember that our objective for this quarter is X. How does this help us with X?”

⇒ “Great idea – but compared to priorities A and B, is there a reason why we should prioritize this higher?”

⇒ “Here’s the data I see. What am I missing?”

⇒ Put the idea in the idea backlog. Show them you won’t forget about it – but avoid setting expectations as to when it will be addressed.

⇒ Rather than debate a new idea, recruit them to help you address current priorities. Ask them to own an important task.

Even agreeing to evaluate an idea is still committing resources away from core priorities. Be aware of pursuing too many concurrent lines of inquiry with limited resources.


You will often add more value through by avoiding distractions and ensuring each initiative in the development pipeline has been thoroughly evaluated. Get this right and not only will you avoid significant resource costs but also opportunity costs (which are often much greater). Imagine, for example, you have one high-potential idea, and another that’s not; both costing the same in time and resources (“direct costs”). Don’t overlook the opportunity cost in pursuing an idea with little potential – the additional cost of delayed revenues or forgone growth in not pursuing the high-potential idea. Adopting a challenger mindset will help you balance all the positives and negatives in choosing which ideas are worth pursuing.

Challenger Mindset Action Checklist
o  Set hypotheses for each initiative

o  Establish a continuous testing cadence

o  Communicate assumptions, risks and less-rosy scenarios

o  Identify and engage dissenters

o  Gather and communicate disconfirming data

o  Use idea backlog to park low priorities

o  Practice nice ways to say no

War story – Challenging hidden assumptions

One of our company goals was to ready our platform to support the globalization of the business with all that entailed – multiple languages, currencies, marketing platforms, pricing and packages. I was among a team of Product Managers and Engineers asked to assess all the activities and time required to complete this mammoth task – nothing short of the rewrite of a platform which had been built to serve only a single (US) market. To its credit, the team did not shy away from presenting the bad news: it would take three years.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t fly. We set about challenging our own assumptions, in the hope we could reduce the scope or find creative approaches. We asked such questions as:

  • Is there a smaller set of customers (accounting for a sizable portion of the opportunity) we can build for first?
  • Do we need to offer a full-featured solution, or will local markets be okay with a simplified offering?
  • Can we partner with 3rd parties in some markets, until we’re ready to launch our own solution?

We realized that 80% of the market opportunity came from serving a sub-segment of enterprises, with a much smaller core offering. This would reduce the work by half (such as local marketing, pricing or currency support). By partnering (licensing a partner platform but with our brand and content), we could support consumers in three other markets.

The original plan had assumed everything was required out of the gate, without considering whether this was really necessary. While the new plan was ultimately agreed, time would have been saved if all the pertinent questions had been considered earlier.




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