Product Management Marty Cagan

Coaching – Thinking

So far in this series on coaching, I’ve described a tool for assessing a current or prospective product manager, and then provided detailed examples of how to craft a plan to help the product manager first reach competence, and then to reach her potential.

We’ve discussed the importance of the one on one, and then we’ve discussed the written narrative technique.

More recently we looked at coaching not just her skills and techniques, but also her mindset including thinking like an owner rather than employee, and thinking like a product manager rather than a project manager.

In this article, I’d like to tackle another aspect of mindset, which admittedly can be a little awkward to discuss, but is perhaps the single most important behavior of a capable product manager, which is the ability to think.

Often people refer to this with the shorthand phrase of looking for people that are “smart.”  I’m guilty of this too.  But the term “smart” is ambiguous, and can obscure the real issue.

Mostly when people say “smart” they are referring to intelligence.

First, we need to acknowledge that intelligence and thinking are not at all the same thing.

I do believe that in order to think effectively, (and more generally, to succeed in a career in product management), you do need to have a certain level of intelligence.

However, I meet countless people that are clearly intelligent, yet waste their minds because they don’t know how to (or are unwilling to) actually solve hard problems by thinking.

Second, we also need to recognize that acquiring knowledge and applying knowledge are two different things.

Google, and the wealth of resources it provides easy access to, has made knowledge easier to acquire than ever before, but has done little to help people actually learn to think and apply that knowledge.

Why is thinking so important?  Because at its core, product management is problem solving.

One of the reasons that I love working with designers and engineers so much (and also why I love to recruit designers and engineers into product management) is that thinking is at the very core of what they do.

Yes, they are makers.  But in order to design an experience or craft an implementation, they must essentially be problem solvers.  Designers and engineers are skilled at solving for problems with many constraints.  It is literally what they do every day.

Similarly, product managers must be problem solvers as well.  They are not trying to design the user experience, or architect a scalable, fault-tolerant solution; rather, they solve for constraints aligned around their customer’s business, their industry, and especially their own business: is this something their customers need, is it substantially better than the alternatives, is it something the company can effectively market and sell, that they can afford to build, that they can service and support, and that complies with legal and regulatory constraints?

Moreover, one of the special challenges with technology-powered products and services is that we must solve simultaneously for all three types of constraints – product, design and engineering.  Hence the need for true collaboration (the subject of my next article).

Obviously, some degree of thinking and problem solving is required for any job.  But for product managers, designers and engineers, it is the core.

It’s not hard to spot when a product manager is weak when it comes to thinking.  While I am a big believer in encouraging questions, this presumes the person has done their homework, and put in the intellectual effort to actually consider the issue first.  All too often it is obvious they have not.

Good product companies try to determine how well the candidate can think and solve problems during the interview process.  The issue is not whether the candidate actually knows the answer to a question.  The issue is what does she do when she doesn’t know the answer?

My favorite technique for developing good thinking skills is the written narrative that I mentioned earlier.  I will warn you that for someone that is not used to actually thinking through hard problems, this technique can be truly painful.  But those are the people that need this technique the most.  And for some people, it is here that you’ll realize they are not cut out to be a product manager.

And for those that just don’t seem to believe they can quickly learn and develop new skills, I have long recommended the book Mindset.

But as long as the person has the necessary intelligence, and is willing to put in the intellectual effort, I believe that the ability to learn to think and solve hard problems is absolutely something that can be developed, but it will require active coaching and sincere effort by the manager and the product manager.

Thanks to my SVPG Partner Lea Hickman for her thoughts on a draft of this article.