Summary: You’re not expected to know everything. The best way to help you and your team progress is to stop thinking about failure or success and to start working out how you can learn together.
Seventy Percent of us Worry we Don’t Know What We’re Doing
We’ve all been in meetings where you feel like you’re the only person in a room that doesn’t know quite what’s going on. Whether it’s down to our background, skill sets or experience – this is a scary place to be. You might also feel the same sense of dread if you’re asked to make a decision about something you don’t have all the facts for.
Or you’ve just taken on your first direct report and your choices now have an impact on their life. While it often feels like you’re the only person in the world who is experiencing this, you’re not. Most studies estimate about 70% of the workforce has felt this sense of Imposter Syndrome at some stage in their careers.
You Shouldn’t Know Everything
Not only are you not expected to know everything, if you think you do, then you’re probably in trouble. It will stop you asking questions, exploring possibilities and crucially, you won’t make the most of the skills of your team. You’ve got to be confident in how you lead a team of experts, but with a humbleness that ensures others feel able to contribute and bring their expertise to bear.
Look for better questions. The sciences have long focused on using questions to explore problems and the way forward. You can use them to break things down, peel off layers and ultimately work out the underlying issue you’re trying to solve.
Be Honest and Confident About Your Role
As a product manager, you are not there to understand the technical detail of everything that you build. You have teams of engineers, QA, designers to do that. Your responsibility is to ensure you’re adding value, to prioritise the way that your team moves forward, and communicate about that work to other parts of the organisation. Start every session by reminding people of that agenda, and they will understand the questions you’re asking much more deeply. It also helps keep the session and your role a bit more focused.
The best way to ask better questions is to truly listen to what people say. At that point, you can take what they’re saying, play it back to them in your own words and explore anything that’s unsaid. Often it’s worth coming back to the same point again and again, but reframing at it so that your team can explore it in different ways, and build on each others’ perspectives.
Workplaces are filled with facts that started off as someone’s hunch or opinion. Often your role as a product manager is to call out these assumptions, test whether they’re true, and play devil’s advocate in a conversation about them.
You Won’t Lose Face Just Because you Don’t Know Something
If your team comes to you with a problem or a question, there is a natural temptation to provide an answer right away. We all worry that if we don’t give an answer, we will be seen as less informed and that people will stop coming to us with questions and our authority will diminish. It turns out that the exact opposite is true. If you say you don’t know, but come up with a way that you and your team can work out the answer together – then you’ll increase the chances of people coming to you with issues that they’re looking to solve.
Primary school teachers know this and that’s why they always take a child to a dictionary if they don’t know how to spell something – so that they can work it out together. Their and your role is to help the team become better at solving its own problems in the future – rather than providing solutions to questions you’re not equipped to answer.
Adulting Makes you Worried About What People Think
Many people become more conservative in how they make decisions and run their teams as they get more experienced. This often comes down to being more afraid of failure – because you have more of a reputation to protect. One of the ways to get over this is again to ask questions incessantly and as early as possible within a project.
No Matter how Much you Prepare, You’ll Still end up in new Situations
Throughout your career and personal life, you will develop capabilities and become expert in certain areas. You will acquire skills, toolkits and frameworks for tackling problems and situations. However, there will always be something that comes up from nowhere and makes you realise how exposed you are. The only way forward in these situations is to focus on what you know, trust you have the skills, and carry on. You may never have been in this exact situation before, but you will have seen similar ones, and everything worked out fine.