Great Product Managers are “Outcome Thinkers”

Product Management is the craft of building the right things. Part of this craft is about (1) discovering and (2) delivering these right things. But a third, and less discussed, part of this craft is about correctly defining what “right” even means in the first place.

My own product thinking has evolved several times (mostly due to mistakes I have made) over the last few years as I continue to refine my definition of what “right” means. Throughout this process, I have noticed three distinct types of thinking across different product management organizations: Technology Thinking, Problem Thinking, and Outcome Thinking. These are not created equal.

Bad Product Managers are “Technology Thinkers”

People new to product management, excited about being in a seat where they get to build things, often start off as Technology Thinkers. They define the “right things to build” as “things that are feasible and new”.

“What new things could we build?” — Technology Thinker

Of course, Technology Thinkers quickly build things that are obviously wrong because they don’t solve a real customer problem. Google Glass, the Amazon Fire Phone and Segway are mainstream examples of this. All three of these products used new technology and worked well. Google Glass used advancements in augmented reality and voice recognition. The Amazon Fire Phone had innovative 3D features. Segway had innovative self-balancing technology. But none of these products solved a real problem. Why do I need something on my head to take photos, don’t I have my phone? Who cares if I can see in 3D on my Amazon Fire Phone? Where do I use a Segway, in the road or sidewalks? Few people bought any of these.

Technology Thinkers eventually realize that “things that are feasible and new” is too broad a definition of “right”. They typically then evolve from Technology Thinkers into Problem Thinkers. Making this improvement in thinking is what people mean when they say things like “focus on the problem” or “fall in love with the problem, not the solution”.

Note that Technology Thinking is still crucial in organizations tasked with pioneering the realm of what is possible, such as research and engineer groups, it just isn’t the job of a PM to do this. Technology Thinkers discover and invent new ways of doing things, and then PMs selectively apply them to change the world. It is not that Technology Thinking is bad in general, it is that PMs who use Technology Thinking misunderstand their role in the pipeline of progress.

Good Product Managers are “Problem Thinkers”

Problem Thinkers have a narrower definition of what the “right things to build are”. They define it has “things that solve a real customer problem”. Of course, in order to solve a real problem, the solution also has to be feasible. The set of things that Problem Thinker’s define as “right” to build is not disjoint from that of Technology Thinkers but rather a subset of it.

“What problem would this solve?” — Problem Thinker

This refined definition of “right” is good because it prevents building products that don’t solve a real problem. However, Problem Thinkers are primarily focused on managing the risk of building useless things, as opposed to focusing on building great things. For this reason, Problem Thinkers regularly build mediocre products that don’t improve the world, the business, or customers’ lives in any deliberate or meaningful way.

After shipping several mediocre products, the best Problem Thinkers end up further refining their definition of “right” to ensure their products don’t only solve a problem, but also improve the world meaningfully. They evolve into what I call Outcome Thinkers.

Great Product Managers are “Outcome Thinkers”

Outcome Thinkers have the strictest and most refined definition of what the “right things to build” are: things that achieve desired outcomes. Of course, in order to achieve desired outcomes, one must also be solving a real problem and building something feasible. Hence, the set of things Outcome Thinkers define as “right” to build is again not disjoint from that of Technology or Problem Thinkers, but rather a special subset of it.

“What outcome would solving this problem achieve?” — Outcome Thinker

Of the things that solve a real problem, Outcome Thinkers discover and deliver the special few that actually achieve the outcome they want. Outcome Thinkers build products that turn businesses around, double revenue, half costs, delight people, save people, connect people, or any other outcome one might dream up. They discover and deliver these things, in part, simply because they make outcomes the bedrock of their thinking and decision making.

Elon Musk is a great example of an Outcome Thinker. He isn’t building SpaceX because it is now feasible to re-land a rocket (Technology Thinking). He isn’t building SpaceX to solve the problem of costly satellite delivery (Problem Thinking). He is building SpaceX to achieve the outcome of getting humans to mars and making humans a space faring species (Outcome Thinking). Outcome Thinkers build things that deliberately change the world in the way they want it to be changed. The best Product Managers are Outcome Thinkers.

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