Today I conclude the series on “Thinking Like a Product Manager” – the four mindsets Product Managers must employ to ensure they are pursuing ideas which are of most value to their customers and company. Today we discuss the common traps PMs fall into when identifying, exploring, and evaluating ideas.
Pitfall 1 – Playing only to your strengths
You are likely stronger at one or a few of the mindsets over others. Perhaps you are deeply analytic – a wizard at data, spreadsheets and deriving insights – but weaker creatively. Or perhaps you’re one of those people that can easily find and tackle problems – but getting on stage to evangelize your ideas terrifies you. This is normal – Product Managers are human – you must not think that to be successful you need to be good at everything. Be conscious of what you naturally do well and deliberately move out of your comfort zone to put into practice less strong skills. Perhaps ask a friendly colleague who is strong in the skill to give your coaching and pointers.
You also need to compensate for the natural “go-to” strengths of key stakeholders or team members. Look across your team and stakeholders. What are their “go-to” strengths and what are yours? Map these to the framework and pick one area to focus on. Three common examples are when you are working with:
1. A visionary and thrilling founder or leader – the tendency is to get swept up in new ideas and skip detailed critique or to explore different solutions.
2. A strong, decisive, and respected peer or stakeholder – the tendency is to see him or her as “the boss”, rarely wrong, demanding action. While wrong they might rarely be, gather data and develop your own point-of-view. If needed, challenge them diplomatically. Be aware they might have context or insights you don’t.
3. A deeply technical and/or data-driven team – while you may well have a good handle on the problem and solution, it is possible that is all a little dry or overly detailed. You can lose momentum if you cannot excite others outside of the immediate team and customers with a vision and emotion.
Pitfall 2 – Applying the mindsets, but not objectively
Try to avoid the many cognitive biases, which flaw much human decision making. Your role is to guide the organization to a rational outcome, if not one still with risk and unknowns. By simply being aware of possible biases you will be more likely to detect them, in yourself or in others, and counteract them. There are dozens of decision-making, belief, behavioral, and social biases.
The most common I have observed in modern technology organizations, and which Product Managers should guard against, are:
1. Confirmation bias: the tendency to look for data that confirms a held belief, preferred outcome, or expectation. These manifest through
- locking onto data that supports what you want to hear
- dismissing data that seems to disagree with your hypothesis (e.g. as “outliers”), or
- interpreting data in a way that generates optimistic insights to confirm preconceptions.
Actively seek to disprove your hypothesis (such as by testing alternative hypotheses). Embrace data that disagrees with you or seems misaligned with your beliefs.
2. Authority bias: a manager, key customer, or other person – either in a position of power or expertise (perceived or real) – may assert information to be true or a course of action to be the preferred or correct path. The tendency is to skip critical assessment of their directive, perhaps out of deference to their authority, an over-eagerness to please them, or an assumption that they “have all the facts”.
Don’t drink the kool-aid. Diplomatically negotiate for time to complete discovery: analysis, testing, talk to customers, and explore solutions. Explain the need for you and the team to have first-hand experience of the customer problem you are solving and to develop a solution which makes best use of your scarce resources.
3. Reputation risk: once you propose and communicate support for an idea, you become personally invested. It is very easy to fall in love with your own ideas (halo effect) or to see the failure of an idea you have supported as a reflection of your own personal failings. This results in defensiveness, inflexibility, and a tendency to reject new data that contradicts your belief.
Be mature enough to divorce your personal feelings and professional reputation away from whether an idea works or not. Embrace potential failure as a learning experience and communicate what you learned to others and the benefits of figuring this out earlier than later. Usually your colleagues and stakeholders will see such maturity as a strong character trait.
4. Group-think: also called “herd mentality”, the tendency to believe in something because many other people do. Perhaps these are long held beliefs or organizational norms. Perhaps they are ways of doing things that have “always been done that way”, so no one has thought to challenge something so ingrained. It is an easy path to conform and go along with.
Product Managers consider the possibility that entire groups can convince themselves of the infallibly of their ideas, creating an echo chamber. building false confidence by agreeing with each other. They don’t skip the important step of gathering independent, external data which may potentially invalidate these “sacred cows”.
5. Sunk cost fallacy: sometime an investment is made into a certain path – whether time, resources, or reputation – that later turns out to be less promising than originally thought. It is common to justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong. Of course, this is throwing good money after bad.
Declare milestones you must meet along the way to justify continued investment, separate and report on future investment vs. past, and cut bait (after 2-3 tries to make something work).
Some techniques for guarding against biases
⇒ Rather than just testing your own product, also test your competitors’ products. You have so much less personal attachment and may well learn that users are quite happy with the existing solutions. Or perhaps find clues to differentiate your product and stand-out.
⇒ Ask the opposite question to your hypothesis – can you disprove it?
⇒ Divide customers into five groups and seek to interview a sample from them all – “friendly current customers”, “dissatisfied current customers”, “elapsed customers”, “competitor’s customers”, “potential customers”
⇒ As a rule, during early discovery and as resources allow, explore two potential solution options simultaneously. One horse races are easily won.
⇒ When prescribed a feature request or particular solution priority, ask “why”. Keep pushing until you feel you have context… have identified the root problem they are trying to address. Then work back from there to decide priorities and devise solutions.
Pitfall 3 – Ambiguity vs. Certainty, and Analysis Paralysis
In Product Management, as in all business functions, to delay or not make a decision is a decision in its own right. Time marches on, resources are being deployed on work, and eventually the decision will be made for you.
It is entirely valid also to kick the can down the road, to delay a decision that does not need to be made immediately – and to seek more information first. But to keep moving forward, when needed, you must be ready to make choices with partial, incomplete or contradictory information. Data can be inconclusive – sometimes there isn’t enough or it is too noisy to guide to an outcome with confidence.
Do not fall victim to analysis paralysis, where you (or stakeholders) seek more and more, and more, information in the hope it will increase your confidence in a decision that is long overdue. Information gathering can be endless if you are not careful. It is also a significant investment in time and resources to collect, synthesize and generate insights. Only collect data that will usefully affect the actions you can take – that which will inform with good probability, but in no way certainty, the best option to pursue. You can always revisit once you learn more. Few decisions are so locked in stone that you cannot reverse should you learn something material later.
Pitfall 4 – Conflict avoidance
Few people enjoy confrontation but embracing healthy conflict as part of developing ideas and potential solutions is essential. Constructive conflict is the process whereby trusted professionals, who mutually respect each other, come together to share a diverse set of points-of-view, challenge each other’s assumptions, debate alternatives, and develop a more thorough outcome. The best decisions are usually only made then – either by creating a hybrid, through compromise, or by one side convincing the other side of the validity of their arguments. Embracing and pursuing new ideas is hard-work – criticizing or just keeping the status-quo is easy.
Individual personalities and cultural backgrounds will affect how comfortable someone is with conflict. Many individuals are highly uncomfortable with conflict, perhaps thinking challenging others is rude or inappropriate (especially towards those in more senior positions). Social norms might mean someone gives an opinion that is more socially correct than what they truly think, so as to avoid offense or to “fit in”.
In other cases, you may be faced with a particularly challenging team member who seems to enjoy arguing – disagreeing frequently, finding new options, challenging the rationale and data. So long as this remains a constructive process, try to be patient and embrace their dissent.
When you find yourself disagreeing with your peers or manager, speak up and avoid sugar-coating your message. Obviously, you want to think about appropriate forums to do so (not, for example, at all-hands meetings in front of the entire company). It is also the Product Manager’s responsibility to invite and encourage others to speak up – especially to balance out the louder, more frequent contributors..
Diplomatically challenging others
Particularly with senior colleagues, but also with peers, you want to come off as supportive, aligned, and undemanding. Try not to challenge others too directly unless you have built a strong relationship where this is expected. When engaging others, start first by reiterating the useful insights they bring. Then ask leading questions such as:
⇒ “What if X happens?”
⇒ “Who else to involve?”
⇒ “Why do you think…?”
⇒ “What data might we gather to…?”
⇒ “What do you think of Y alternative?”
⇒ “Have you thought about…?”
Pitfall 5 – Not trusting your instincts and dismissing an idea too easily
At the start of their lives, ideas are very fragile. They are easily dismissed or ignored. Upon first glance, they might not seem to be very good at all – lacking data or validation, hard to imagine their application, challenging the status-quo, or so audacious they are seemingly unobtainable.
Do not let new ideas be easily overridden. Try to sift out what appears to be opinion versus good reasoning about its validity. When a new idea comes up, positively acknowledge the parties that made the contribution and look for its merits. Resist starting by pointing out all the problems and reasons it might not be workable. Doing so sends a message that you welcome creativity – which in turn encourages more.
“It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.” – Henri Poincare
Even in the face of significant data and doubt, don’t entirely dismiss you own intuition (gut feel) and that of others. Data, or rather its interpretation, can lie. Particularly, bold innovative ideas may not receive a positive response by stakeholders or customers initially – but after a product solution is created, they wonder how they ever lived without it. The balance is to know when you’ve enough data to walk away from an idea versus keep believing in your intuition and vision.
Delivering on your product vision requires you to be persistent, try new things, and taking risks. Listen to your heart as much as rationalize with your head.
War story – Embracing Conflict
As Head of Product, a Product Manager on my team was struggling. He wouldn’t seem to listen to his stakeholders, was suspicious of communicating openly, and extremely over-protective of any plans or initiatives he was working on.
Over time I became more and more frustrated… What was going on?
At some point, one of his peers (another Product Manager) discussed over lunch what they liked and didn’t like about the company environment – which they later shared with me…
“I don’t feel trusted. I am asked too many questions by our manager and other product managers. I feel like I’m being tested all the time.”
The other Product Manager expressed surprise.
“But that’s what I like about our culture. Our team is only challenging you to make sure your ideas and plan is as good as they can be. They do that to me too – it helps me find the flaws and practice my response.
Far from feeling tested, I feel like they want me to be successful – so when I go back to the engineering team or speak with a senior executive, our ideas are bullet proof.”