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A product manager’s reflections for a better 2021

“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius” has become my mantra of 2020 (thanks Nassim Taleb). If that’s true then what follows should be pure gold: a collection of my best reflections for a challenging year.

Bring on 2021 (Illustration by Author)

This year I tried something different. I wanted to craft an article each month on an interesting thought or lesson from my life as a product manager.

It’s been a long time since a year lived has taught me so much on living and working well.

In this article, I’ve summarised some of my most exciting ideas from the year. I hope you enjoy it and that it helps with your own reflections as we move forward together into 2021.

1. Turn your team into an idea factory

How to Persuade a Product Manager

Good ideas give us more opportunities for success.

We should encourage our teams to develop their thoughts with systems that provide them with confidence in the validity of good ideas.

The riskier the idea the more time you should probably spend thinking it through.

If you want to check you are solving a valuable problem question ask this question — how much would you need to pay somebody not to use your product?

Further Reading

2. Difficult conversations help difficult situations

A product manager’s guide for difficult conversations

Being confident and skilled in having a difficult conversation frees you to not only identify and work through issues before they become big problems.

Further Reading

3. Build for resilience while planning for change

Product strategies for after the pandemic

Things not going to plan is a fact of life. The best we can do is put in place plans and mental models on how to be resilient to disruptive events biologically, psychologically and socially while also keeping an eye on any opportunities that may emerge as a result.

This year it was the pandemic, next year we don’t know. But we can be mentally prepared for the worst when it emerges.

Further Reading

  1. Roaring out of recession
  2. Mental Health Considerations During a Pandemic Influenza Outbreak
  3. Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives
  4. Shaping Strategy in a World of Constant Disruption
  5. Reinvent Your Business Before It’s Too Late Product strategies for after the pandemic How I am preparing my product and team for a world after

4. Product managers don’t build products, they make decisions

Decision making for product managers

The creation of products is the result of a bunch of little decisions stacked together.

The benefits of a series of healthy choices have the power to compound returns over time, so you really want to give yourself the best chance of making the best choices you can.

By leveraging decision-making models, you can run your thoughts through a range of perspectives that help engage your thinking and hopefully work through any blind spots and biases.

Further Reading

5. When luck happens all you can do is control your response

Luck vs skill in determining product success

Luck events, both good and bad, are out of your control, unevenly distributed and inevitable.

Being at the mercy of luck puts us into a reactive mindset which usually means we don’t make the best decisions as we try to get away or lean into luck events.

Pausing a second and being able to zoom out of the situation enables us to acknowledge a luck event is occurring. This the first step towards taking back control and planning for the best outcome now and later should such an event occur again.

Further Reading

6. Taking notes makes you a better thinker

Building a Second Brain for Productivity

In product management, we highly valued for our ability to generate valuable ideas, solve challenging problems and draw strategic insights across the disciplines of sales, tech and design. So it makes sense that anything that helps us perform those tasks more effectively will be welcomed.

A curated note-taking system that encourages you to think through what may be valuable from a range of sources is a significant first step to catalysing your thought process and its impact.

What you are actually doing is thinking about thinking; almost a form to metacognition.

Further Reading

7. Understanding user problems requires second-order thinking

How product managers should understand users

When people describe a pain point, it can be tempting to deal exclusively with that problem, when actually the real issue lies hidden beneath the surface.

It’s the equivalent of a patient taking opioids for a painful knee when rather physiotherapy to strengthen the joint would resolve the underlying problem.

For example, a user tells us their search results are not relevant, we could fiddle around with the ranking system to make it more relevant, but solving their problem actually requires a deeper understanding of their intent.

We need to use a process of second-order emotional thinking to identify the most valuable problems and put ourselves in the position of the user. This enables us to image the world the way our user sees it and use the same language they use to describe it.

Further Reading/Watching

8. A system for building systems makes a happy team

Five product team lessons learned while building a search engine

Three principles I’ve learned for fostering a healthy project team include

  1. The ability for one’s mind to be changed
  2. A process of collecting feedback from teammates and users
  3. A system for developing systems when things don’t go to plan

Further Reading

9. Please motivate your team, but responsibly

Use motivation to inspire teams, but don’t intentionally mislead them just squeeze out some more productivity. The short term benefits may be good, but it comes at the expense of long term harm; emotionally blunting people to the pleasures of work.

Further Reading/Watching

Thank you for reading everyone. Have a happy new year and look forward to seeing you all in 2021.

Execution beats luck, Consistency beats intensity, Curiosity beats smart , Kind beats clever, Together beats alone

  • Shane Parrish

Bonus !— Best Clip of the Year