In My Humble Opinion by Thor Mitchell "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs May 05 2020 True Editor's Pick, hard skills, mtp engage manchester, Product Management Skills, Soft Skills, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 973 Product Management 3.892

In My Humble Opinion by Thor Mitchell


In this MTP Engage Manchester talk, Thor Mitchell, a product management coach and former CPO of Crowdcube, explains the importance of humility for product managers.

Key points

  • To be a great product manager, recognise what you know what you have yet to learn
  • Understand that, in reality, you’re not all that, and that’s ok
  • Be ready to learn from anyone and everyone – each of us has something to teach
  • Recognise when you’re wrong and when things are your fault

What Makes a Great Product Manager Great?

Thor begins by saying that product management is a diverse role. When hiring for a product manager, you’ll likely see very different types of people applying for the job, all with varying sets of skills. So which are the skills you should be looking out for?

Thor’s advice is to ‘prioritise that which you can not teach’. He describes the spectrum of skills and attributes someone in a product manager role would need:

  1. At one end are the skills and ability to use certain tools. Things you can usually get training for.
  2. In the middle, are writing a good user story, performing effective research and building a good relationship with engineers – all valuable skills that take practice to do well.
  3. Sitting at the hard end of the spectrum are leadership, collaboration and communication skills –  all of which are coachable, but take time and investment.
  4. Running throughout them all are character traits. The things that make you who you are, that are almost impossible for anyone else to change.

Most blog posts and product manager articles on the internet focus on middle bits, says Thor, something he wanted to rectify by doing some writing of his own. He, therefore, focused on the character traits of great leaders, one of which resonated with him more than any other: humility.  

This is why…

You Are Not All That

As a Product Manager, he says, it’s easy to believe that you are important, but for a variety of reasons you are not. As Ken Norton wrote in his 2005 article, How to Hire a Product Manager: ‘No one asked you to show up’. Many organisations, large and small, get along fine without a Product Manager.

As a result, you can’t afford to be complacent. If you want to define the roadmap, to own the relationship with the customer or to manage the backlog, then you have to earn that right. This requires you to build trust and to demonstrate competence.

Prioritise Your Time

Product Managers are deluged with tasks, and the sheer number of demands on your time can quickly become overwhelming. It’s vital to stay focussed on the things where you can have the most impact.

A common trap is to focus on urgent things, those with tight deadlines, rather than those that are important. Important things fall into 3 categories:

  1. Tasks that are genuinely important
  2. Tasks that feel important
  3. Tasks that make you feel important

Learn From Everyone

Thor goes on to explain that everybody is interesting and everybody provides you with an opportunity to learn.

‘If your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be limited. If you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited’ – Clay Christensen

Everyone you meet is an expert in something you are not. So, if you’re humble enough to recognise that then you can view the world as seven billion learning opportunities.

Take advantage of this incredible opportunity by talking to some customers you wouldn’t normally talk to because the business doesn’t consider them important or valuable. Similarly, seek out colleagues you wouldn’t normally speak to. Don’t be a snob about who you learn from.

You’re Probably Wrong

It’s very easy to convince yourself that you have your users figured out – that you really understand them. But, the truth is, your users are far more complex than you give them credit for. No matter how much research you do, it will be flawed to some extent. To accept this reality takes humility.

There’s always more you can learn about your users. As you learn more about your users, your product vision should evolve in tandem. It’s a constant process of correction and refinement. There are no right answers you can only make the best decision based on what you know now.

Recognise When It’s Your Fault

Some things don’t go to plan and ultimately this is something a Product Manager should shoulder the responsibility for. Accepting this can be really hard and it’s natural to go on the defensive. Owning your failures is a far better strategy for building relationships with your team and it allows you all to move past finger pointing and to get on with things.

Find the Humility in your Team

Thor closes by reminding us that it’s important that we look for the humility character trait when hiring Product Managers (and other roles into your team). When you are interviewing ask yourself: Are they comfortable not knowing everything? Are they conscious of their own assumptions?

In Conclusion

Humility, he says, has to come from within. If you don’t have it already, it will take a conscious effort to change and become a better person. You can save a lot of time and emotional energy by practising humility and by asking yourself these questions:

  • What assumptions am I making?
  • What are the limits to my understanding?
  • Why am I wrong?

In the end, the reasons to do this are simple – embracing humility will make you a better Product Manager, a better person and will ultimately be better for your mental health. Surely it’s a no brainer.