Critical thinking is a topic that resonated with product leaders in our state of product management survey late last year – many of you said that the ability to employ critical thinking had been the most essential skill in enabling you to progress your career.
We thought this warranted closer examination and so we’ve canvassed a few friendly product leaders for their thoughts and views on the topic.
How might we define critical thinking, and what makes it so important for a product leadership role?
Critical Thinking for Product Leaders
Put simply, says Ishraf Ahmad, director of experience design at UnitedHealth Group, critical thinking is knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them. “As human beings, we’re very predisposed to reaching conclusions really fast,” he says, “especially within healthcare, it’s critical to question that status quo, to ask ‘why’ questions. To me, critical thinking is thinking about the purpose of what we are trying to accomplish. What is the objective? I have seen so many of our product organisations just jump into a product without really having a vision or a mission for it because one of our executives thought we should or because we’ve seen one of our competitors do it.” He adds that critical thinking is important for a product leader as it helps to give you a clear vision and arrive at a clear mission for your product. It means you arrive at a true understanding of the customer problem, and align the organisation to customer problems.
For Hans Fischmann, VP of product management at XandR, in practice critical thinking manifests as a blend of being data-driven and having emotional intelligence. He says it’s the ability to strip away emotion and editorial from data and analysis while actively seeking out intangibles that may muddy the data. “While it sounds similar to being ‘data-driven’ the intentional inclusion of unquantified data is what makes critical thinking a different skill that is specific to a product manager.”
Eric Bin, VP of product at Procurify, comments that product managers are by nature generalists who deal with specialists who nevertheless expect the product manager to understand what they’re doing. He says that the more senior you are the more cross functional your role becomes, consequently your conversations become more strategic and complex. “If your critical thinking skills aren’t up to snuff, or they’re not growing and developing in terms of your capacity to think through problems really quickly, then you become a huge bottleneck,” he says. Megan Wade, senior director, growth and experimentation at Delivery Hero in Berlin, adds that leveraging critical thinking allows product managers to quickly pivot product roadmaps or activities around the changing global climate.
How can it be Learned?
What are the traits of a skilled critical thinker? Can they be learned, and if so, how? Ishraf jokes that he comes from a liberal arts background and that the one thing it taught him was how to think critically. “ I always say that it didn’t give me any real-world skill sets, but it did teach me how to think critically, how to approach a problem, and how to think it through,” he says. He also has a background in Lean Six Sigma and process improvement and says that this, combined with past work in customer experience, also helped him to develop and refine his critical thinking skills.
He also uses some design thinking tools. “My methodology is first to step back, understand and define what the problem is, and then ideate around how to solve it. I take a test and learn approach, and experiment my way to an understanding of the right thing.” He says that it has a lot to do with putting aside ego, and saying that you can find a way to something close to the right answer rather than saying that you know the right answer. “One of my favourite exercises is still the five whys. How do you get to the root cause of a problem? Ask the why question five times and you should get to the root cause of a problem. It’s served me well throughout my career.”
Eric says critical thinking is most certainly something that people can learn. He is ex-Amazon, and he’s found the mental models and leadership principles he learned there to assist with his critical thinking and decision making to have been invaluable throughout his career. He adds that Amazon’s leadership principles are founded in practicality that can work for everyone. “Amazon is always ‘what are you doing upstream so that the outcome is successful?’ Jeff Bezos would always say, we work backwards from the customer,” he says, “it’s critical that your team is able to have a set of good principles or mental models to work on.”
Principles and Mental Models
Eric feels his critical thinking ability has improved over time because he’s become less impulsive and more empathic, and this empathy has developed through his experiences of failing. It’s a sentiment our other product leaders agree with. Hans likens critical thinking to emotional intelligence – an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and carry that forward into the product. Not everything can be surmised going into a product, he says, which is why an iterative approach is needed. “Critical thinking enables a product manager to identify missing stakeholders and work to capture their voice,” he adds. “In advance of a sprint the product team needs to figure out the KPI and necessary sensors to make the next set of decisions. From my perspective, critical thinking is what prevents us from developing too much technical debt. By working through as many scenarios and stakeholders as possible, incorporating the unknowable fuzziness, a great product manager can appear almost clairvoyant with subject matter expertise.”
A Product Leader’s Role
As a product leader Megan finds her role is to challenge the team under her to employ critical thinking, to “really relentlessly analyse and evaluate whether or not to take information at face value, to really play out whether it has a customer benefit”. She also has to be willing to take criticism from the executive team and act as a buffer between the executive and product teams, she says. “It’s about creating air cover for them to experiment a little bit or try different ways to approach a problem and come up with a good idea, and then to work with them to refine the solution,” she says. Eric adds that he likes to give his team freedom on the decisions they make: “What I’m interested in is how they make the decisions faster, what information are you evaluating, how are you looking at it? Who are you considering? What are the trade offs? I’m perfectly fine if they come to me with a high-potential ROI project they think only has a 10% chance of succeeding, as long as they can tell me why. And tell me how and when they find out that it’s not working and what they’ve learned.”
What about any experiences where the ability to think critically has changed the outcome or success of a product?
Ishraf says that at UnitedHealth Group they are charged with improving the way that healthcare is delivered, with finding new and innovative ways to achieve better health for customers and hopefully at a lower cost. They look at how to deliver that in products that create engagement and stickiness and have an impact on behaviour – driving meaningful change in people, because that’s how you get better health. “Human beings are terrible at thinking about their own health till something is really bad. So how do we create better habits earlier on, so that we drive towards better health outcomes?,” says Ishraf. He points out that healthcare is centred around 15-minute visits to the doctor, but most healthcare occurs outside visits to the doctor’s office.
“We worked on an individual health record product,” he says, “and it’s mind-numbing how little access we have to our own health data.” The team asked who would actually use the product, and came to understand that heads of households taking charge of their children and spouses would use it, as would chronic patients who access health care very regularly. “So then we needed an understanding of how they were going to use it, when they were going to use it, and why they would use it. They use it to understand health trends, which medication is working, which isn’t, and so on. It’s about turning health data on paper into something actionable and meaningful for you.”
He gives another example – of caregiving from when UnitedHealth was developing a digital product to centralise caregiving activities. “Caregiving is very demanding and time consuming,” he says. “When we truly looked at the customer problem, we realised that caregivers don’t have time to learn a new product. So we completely shifted direction and looked at the products caregivers currently use so that we could integrate our service with their current lifestyle.” It took a lot of organisational wrangling, says Ishraf. “It took a lot of iterations. We did fail and learn as we were going along what the product couldn’t and shouldn’t be.”
Why Critical Thinking is so Vital
As Ishraf’s examples show, effective critical thinking is at the core of successful product management. For product managers, it means putting aside preconceptions and biases and getting to the nub of a problem, and then working through potential scenarios and answers until you’re satisfied your solution is the best it can be. For product leaders it can mean giving the team the freedom and support they need to analyse and explore the information at their disposal so that they can come up with innovative ideas and answers to problems. As Hans Fischmann comments, it’s about more than being data-driven, and it often has a big impact on a company’s approach to the market. He says: “In my experience, there have been multiple times where a product did a significant pivot from our original strategy. By working tirelessly to identify the questions behind the questions, a product manager can minimise the impact of a pivot allowing a company to keep moving forward.”