The life of a product manager can be hectic: being a mile wide and an inch deep means you have a never-ending to-do list. You are constantly thrown into new and unknown situations, deployed to solve challenges that are always bigger than the ones you’ve just solved.
You just aligned diverse stakeholders on your new strategy and instantly stumbled on an exciting problem that nobody is paying attention to. You want to find out all about it, structure it, and help to set up a team to solve it.
And don’t get me wrong, that’s where product managers usually thrive: after all, most of us become PMs as we love to solve hard problems lying at the intersection of multiple subject areas. And ideally, these problems should challenge us.
However, being successful in this environment isn’t easy. You need to learn a myriad of new things quickly. How do you make a business case to increase team funding? Navigate tradeoffs that span multiple teams or departments? Run market research in 30 countries?
You need to learn, and quickly. And this is the hard part. No one teaches you how to succeed when you are constantly doing things you’ve never done before in your life.
In my career, no matter the role – from a CPO of a small startup to a Product Manager in big tech – I’ve seen product managers both failing to realize their potential, and being on a fast track for growth. And one thing that distinguished the best from the rest was knowing how to learn quickly.
I wanted to share the four lessons that I’ve learned from the best product managers I’ve known, and that I wish I’d discovered sooner.
1. Seek pain to grow faster
The circle of competence is understanding what you know, what you don’t know (known unknowns), and what you don’t know you don’t know (unknown unknowns). The secret to the fastest growth is being outside of your circle of competence, but just slightly: go too far, and you won’t be able to learn, as you will constantly fail; stay inside, and there’s no growth, it’s just the routine.
Finding this balance is hard, but possible. Next time you are in “the zone”, listen to yourself, and find a signal that your mind gives you. To me, the signal for being outside of the circle of competence is busywork: not understanding and making mistakes can be mentally painful – so my mind escapes it by engaging in easy-to-achieve tasks. This is the brain’s coping mechanism.
Understand what your signal is, and then use it as a signal of being in the “learning zone”, and re-focus your attention if needed.
2. Seek feedback (but only the good kind)
No matter how talented you are, it is impossible to understand your blind spots – where exactly your circle of competence ends, and where unknown unknowns begin.
To balance it, surround yourself with people you trust. People who have done it before can see problems brewing before you can. These people can help you solve easy problems with standard solutions, and indicate what issues require more focus.
But even the best mentors have limitations. Always be aware of their vantage points: what is their perspective? Do they have blind spots themselves?
3. Create space for your thoughts
The life of a product manager can get busy. However, it’s impossible to learn or come up with good ideas without space. Research shows that you need two types of space.
First, space to wander. A lot of our learning happens in the “diffuse mode”: when your brain is not thinking about anything in particular. Monotonous tasks that don’t need a lot of mental engagement are a good way to move into this mode: that’s why you have so many good ideas in the shower. Regularly schedule some time for this type of thinking – it might be going to the gym, knitting, or something else.
For me, walking in the park works best: my body is busy enough for creative ideas to come up. If it is too loud, using noise-cancelling headphones helps me to get in “the zone”.
Second, space to think. Get yourself free from busywork. Find the time for deep thoughts and concentrated thinking, when you’re not required to switch contexts. Schedule some time in your calendar, block the whole days to be without meetings (and make sure people know you are not available).
4. Monitor yourself
Most of our decisions are automatic: going through the day, we need to make hundreds of them. To save mental energy, we use patterns. This is our default mode of decision-making.
Your past decisions, both resulting in successes and mistakes, are a great way to find which of your patterns work really well, or, on the contrary, need improvement. Unfortunately, our brains are not designed for that. We tend to rationalize past decisions, or even avoid scrutinizing mistakes at all (as, again, it can be mentally painful).
However, there is a useful trick to get your automatic decision-making from the subconscious to the conscious: keep a decision journal. It is a way to dig deeper into your instincts, dissect them and learn from this process by writing down what is happening in your mind when you make a decision. Later, you can analyze it and understand where your thinking was flawed (or, on the opposite, worked great).
By using the decision journal, I found that I often underestimated the technical complexity of projects that involve architectural changes. This often led to the team overcommitting and stretching themselves too much. I used this knowledge to rely on engineers when making these decisions, always double-checking my estimates.
Every day, product managers are solving complex problems, often ones we haven’t solved before – and that’s what we like about the job. But to succeed in such a fast-paced environment, we need to be able to learn quickly.
This journey can be hard. There are no crash courses for thriving in ambiguity, or for the fastest learning. You need to make yourself comfortable with not being comfortable, and to know how to learn from this experience.
These four lessons helped me learn how to make better decisions – or understand where I am outside of my competence zone and need to rely on others to make them. Use them as a basic framework, and combine them with other mental tools that work for you, to make you unstoppable!