The Parachute Approach to Building Great Products (Breathe & Build Part 2)

This is the second of a three-part article, Breathe & Build: Can Mindfulness Help You Build Great Products? In Part II we are exploring: Is flow enough? Going beyond, with a Beginner’s Mind, avoiding ego traps

Mindfulness, I declare is useful everywhere,” The Buddha observed.

Useful for the product manager with an ambition to build great products, surely!

In Part I of Breathe & Build, we met flow — a state of mind in which creativity and productivity can grow multifold. For the product manager to flow, she needs to be in a high challenge, high skill zone. In flow, we “listen” to our intuition. Seen another way, flow is a condition that allows intuition to blossom. Either way, flow and intuition are intricately linked.

Intuitively Speaking

“The only real valuable thing is intuition,” said Albert Einstein. Defined as “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning,” intuition certainly has a marvelous side, and is indispensable in the product manager’s toolkit.

If the mind is a cauldron of ideas, intuition is the wand that quickly churns these ideas, and connects the dots, often giving birth to disruptive and new-to-the-world products. It allows the synthesis of isolated bits of data and experiences into an integrated picture, resulting in an “aha” experience.

But as Daniel Kahneman says “some intuition is good, some is erroneous”. In his book “Thinking Fast & Slow” Kahneman discusses the various biases and heuristics due to which intuition trips up. Here is a great article that discusses the marvels and flaws of intuition.

How does all this apply to the product manager? Well, intuition draws heavily and is “primed” by past experiences, and expertise. In some ways, it can be seen as the product manager donning an “expert’s mindset”. Relying exclusively on this mindset, the product manager may make up her mind too quickly, overlooking critical information and logical flaws in her thinking process. Because of familiarity with the task, the product manager may also forego critically thinking through ideas, and asking the right questions.

Let’s take an example of a product manager who has spent several years building products for the same customer niche. Even though she regularly spends time on the ground with customers, she may simply “see” their needs through the lens of her prior “knowledge” of these needs. Kahneman calls this a “What You See Is All There Is” bias.

Further, she may take all these “inputs” from customers and her own teams, to build a “coherent” story that agrees with other stories already in her mind, further convincing herself on her approach and solution. Intuition and the expert mind-set have a unique characteristic: suppressing doubt and ambiguity. This leads to products being shipped out, that cater to the builder’s needs more than to customers’ needs.

The bottom line is: leaning heavily on intuition can result in “jumping to conclusions”, and making poor hurried judgements.

Hand me an antidote, please!

So, how do you lean on intuition when required, without falling prey to its dark side? Let’s first revisit the product management triad:

  • “Creative Ideation” with no limits, a connecting of different color dots
  • Open minded evaluation with no ego, where the customer is “listened” to
  • Orchestration of a million tasks, done by hundreds of people in tens of departments

Creative ideation is handled beautifully by flow and intuitive thinking. But what about open minded evaluation? What about when the product manager needs to deeply listen to customers, teams and even competitors?

Expert Mindset <> The Monk & His Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few,” explains Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki.

So what is Beginner’s Mind? Shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind”, a concept in Zen Buddhism, is an attitude of openness, eagerness; it means letting go of preconceptions and approaching things with a fresh, childlike mind and enthusiasm. It is having the “humility” to intentionally take the “experts” hat off, and the ability to see one’s own expertise objectively and critically. I have heard it described as stepping outside “walled gardens” and into a forest of possibilities.

Think of the last time you started learning something new — a musical instrument, a sport, a new coding language or even the last time you visited a new city. That state of not knowing, yet eagerly wanting to know, to experience — is the Beginner’s Mind. Compare this to the expert’s mindset, where habitual patterns of thinking, past successes and failures, worrying about the “destination” — all result in taking us away from the present moment.

Connecting this back to Daniel Kahneman’s “Two-system” theory — Beginner’s Mind is somewhat analogous to the logical thinking processes of System 2, or Slow Thinking. It is about rationally looking at things from several different angles, and in several different dimensions.

Beginner’s Mind is a crucial building block for the Parachute Approach.

What’s “Growth-Mindset” got to do with It?

Another concept that is gaining ground among innovators is the “growth mindset”. What is that and how is it related to the Beginner’s Mind?

Carol Dweck, psychologist & author of the insightful book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, introduces us to two mindsets: the “fixed mindset”: the know-it-all and the “growth mindset”: the learn-it-all. “When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself,” explains Dweck.

Satya Nadella, a proponent of the concept, says “I need to be able to walk out…and say, ‘Where was I too close-minded (today), or where did I not show the right kind of attitude of growth in my own mind?”

Whether you think of it as a “growth-mindset” or “Beginner’s Mind”, this lens of openness is becoming increasingly critical for managers to adopt. This mindset, innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgements and prejudices, simply sees “things as-they-are”. Those in Growth (or Beginner’s) mindset are genuinely interested in hearing how they might improve their skills. They are thankful for feedback and are quick to laugh at their own foibles.

The Beginner’s Mind in practice

While there are many ways to apply Beginner’s Mind to the product journey, here are two ways that can help the product manager build a strong foundation:

1) “Understanding” customer needs, listening deeply beyond what is being said: All product journeys begin and end with the customer. Setting aside the expert’s mindset and donning the beginner’s mind is critical when speaking and listening to customers, to understand their needs. Can we suspend connecting the dots and building coherent stories in our minds, while listening to customers?

In the book “Search Inside Yourself” Google’s “Jolly-Good Fellow” Chade-Meng Tan shares some insightful thoughts on the power of mindfulness to listen better, and have mindful conversations. He talks of three components of open mindful listening and conversations:

  • Mindful Listening: which means simply listening with your full attention, without interrupting, and without judging or trying to draw inferences.
  • “Looping”: short for closing the loop of communication. It means repeating to the speaker what you thought he said. The speaker then gives feedback on what he thought was missing or misrepresented, and this process repeats till the speaker is satisfied that he has been correctly understood.
  • “Dipping”, or checking in with ourselves — Meng explains that the main reason we do not listen to others is that we get distracted by our own feelings and internal chatter, often in reaction to what is being said. With mindfulness practice, we learn to simply notice this chatter, and let it go. “Dipping is self-directed mindfulness during listening,” he says.

Three simple practices, all arising from mindfulness and a beginner’s mind. Together, they can help a product manager to truly understand, and remain honest to, customer needs and wants.

2) “First ideas”, and Non-Attachment: Once the product manager has “deeply” listened to customers and has a firm handle on the “problem to be solved”, it’s time to head to the drawing board. At this point, most of us put together all our knowledge such as customer and competitor data and inputs, to come up with a “solution”. The problem? Many of us get “attached” to our first solution or idea.

What we forget is: there can be multiple solutions to a problem. It is critical to don the Beginner’s Mindset at this time. It may be useful to detail out the first idea, and then set it aside. Then intentionally, come up with 4 more approaches that are as different as possible from each other. This way you have stretched your mind to look at the problem from multiple angles, and when you come back to your first idea, you will probably see it in a “new light” and can objectively choose the best approach.

Going beyond Beginner’s Mind, by being “Actively Open Minded”

Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded,” writes Philip Tetlock in his book Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction. Successful forecasters are “actively open-minded” he says. They actively seek out evidence and opinions that go against their own. In fact, they also actively challenge their own judgements and opinions.

The key word here is actively. While Beginner’s Mind is all about being open-minded, curious, starting with a clean slate — can you take it a step forward by intentionally seeking out criticism — both externally and internally?

The importance of this kind of “intellectual humility” for the product manager cannot be over-emphasized. I hope you will adopt not just the Beginner’s Mind and Growth Mindset, but also an attitude of active openness during your product journey.

This then — Beginner’s Mind with an attitude of being actively open-minded — is the Parachute Approach to building great products.

Building Blocks: a 5-step plan to getting started with Beginner’s Mind

With that covered, open your parachute, don the Beginner’s hat & get going on your product journey!

As always, let me leave you with some questions to ponder over till we meet next: We looked at Flow in Part I, and Beginner’s Mind here — is one better than the other for the product manager? Could Beginner’s Mind deepen intuition? And can Flow, Intuition, and Beginner’s Mind all work in tandem?

Join me next week as I explore these questions in the last part of Breathe & Build, Can Mindfulness Help You Build Great Products: Part III: Yin and Yang. Yang and Yin. Cracking the code with a Balancing Act

In case you missed Part I: Countering stress with mindfulness to sustain “flow”, build masterpieces, you can read it here.

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