In this November 2020 #mtpcon Digital talk, Product Coach Shaun Russell uses real-life examples to illustrate how product people learn and reveals why it is that some product managers develop faster than others.
Watch the 37-minute session in full, or read on for the highlights.
Shaun starts his session by describing his experience of learning German after moving from the UK to Berlin four years ago. At the same time, he became an uncle and was interested to see if his grasp of the language would happen faster than his new niece Tabitha would learn to speak. As it turned out, when Shaun’s German began to plateau, Tabitha’s English was continuing to improve at an impressive rate. What Shaun realised what that Tabitha had something he didn’t – ‘Sprachgefühl’. This German word, he explains, means the instinctive or intuitive grasp of the natural idiom of a language. So, while Tabitha didn’t have the theory behind her language, she would simply, intuit it. “I believe this paradox of language learning, how young people can learn it so fast and all the people with more techniques and skills and theory should, but fail to learn so fast, is also mirrored by what we see in product.” Perhaps, he says, there is also ‘Productgefühl’ or ‘Product feel’- “the instinctive, intuitive grasp that we have for product management, the product that we’re working with, and our relationship towards it.”
To distil how we might all develop Productgefühl or Product feel, Shuan draws upon his experience as a coach over the last two years. During this time, he’s coached 73 product managers and discovered that there are three main ways in which people learn:
- By doing
- From others
- From surroundings
Learn By Doing
To illustrate ‘learning by doing’, Shaun, talks about a coachee called Lynsey. Lynsey started out in customer service on Shaun’s team, learning on the job from the customers she dealt with day in and day out. She then moved into a “baby PM” role and continued to learn the ropes, step by step and when the opportunity to take on her “next big challenge” (work on a major project in a Product Lead position), Lynsey made sure she was first in line. When the project was in full swing, she worked hard and learned by “going through the motions”.
For Lynsey, says Shaun, the pattern is pretty clear. Over and over again, Lynsey would throw herself into new challenges. One in which she wasn’t guaranteed success, but one through which she would always learn from. “At every single step, she took it on she embraced it. She really committed to it and tried to succeed. Even when it was a challenging new thing for her.”
For this type for learning pattern to be successful, says Shaun, the product manager must be willing and ready to step up and their manager must ensure that their product manager always has a next big challenge lined up.
Learn From Others
Next, Shaun describes learning from others, something almost every coachee tells him that they do. “To be able to do this, he says, it’s important to find people to guide you. Shaun calls these people ‘Inside Guides’ and says these should be people who are worth learning from, and who care about your growth. “If you’re a product manager, then you’re a generalist. You should have many different things to learn from the experts around you, and it should be relevant to what you’re doing.”
Ideally, your Inside Guide will be your line manager and have product knowledge themselves but, at a minimum, they “just need to be someone who cares and takes responsibility within your organisation. Someone who sees your work on a day-to-day basis.” If you can’t find that person, you’re in the wrong company. “You should go and find somewhere where you will have people to learn from in these ways.”
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Learn From Surroundings
The final category, learning from your surroundings, is one most product managers do without thinking about. But it’s one Shaun thinks we can push further if we do it consciously.
This requires you to observe your team, to see “how they’re operating, where they sit, how they talk to each other, what they are delivering, and why.” Over time, your understanding of these observations will become more strategic. “Soon you start realising that actually, all this organisational politics affects me, I can see it playing out in the types of projects that we have,” he says.
To best learn from your surroundings, Shaun recommends, making the effort to understand your company’s organisational chart. Know who reports to who, especially in relation to product. You should also understand the business model, look up the budget/forecast documents to understand how the company is expected to grow, and finally, you should identify the ‘most important meeting’. As Shaun explains, there is almost always a meeting which really drives decisions and you should to try and find out which meeting that is. If needs be, he says: “Ask your line manager, what they think the most important meeting in the organisation is and if you can participate in these meetings, or simply asked to observe.”
So, why do some product managers develop faster than others? The answer, says Shaun, is that the fast learners take time to develop their ‘Product Feel’. They learn by doing and are always ready to embrace their next big challenge. They seek out the people around them with the most valuable insights and strive to learn from them. Finally, they observe everything happening around them and learn from their surroundings.