The importance of humility in product management

Thor Mitchell
Aug 28 · 10 min read

As a product leadership coach and former CPO, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a great product manager. This is a pretty hot topic right now, with a lot of content being published to serve the growing appetite for product management as a career.

Although a lot of this content is extremely valuable, one skill in particular, humility, is rarely mentioned. This could be because it is often perceived as a character trait rather than a learnable skill, or perhaps because product managers who are skilled at being humble are too humble to admit it.

Regardless, great product managers are humble to a fault. They understand that their opinion is just one of many valuable and valid opinions. They are aware that they can never truly understand how others feel, or what others need, but must never stop trying to do so. They do not crave attention, credit, or authority, yet they offer them willingly to others.

So why is this? Why does performance as a product manager correlate with humility in this way? And if it is a skill, how can it be learned?

You’re probably wrong

Product management is a continuous learning process. No matter how much research you do, and how much data you gather, you can never accurately predict every aspect of the behaviour of your users, customers, and colleagues. You will find yourself constantly surprised by their actions, despite the fact that those actions are always rational in context.

Great product managers know that no matter how well they understand their product, and the people it serves, that understanding is always incomplete. As a consequence any assumptions they make, and any solutions they consider, will also be flawed to some extent.

Discovering and addressing those flaws is at the heart of the learning process. Managing a product is not a linear journey from where you are to where you want to be. It’s a constant process of course correction, as you continue to learn more about the challenge you are tackling and the people you serve.

Rather than finding this uncertainty discouraging, great product managers find it exciting to discover their mistakes. They recognise being wrong as a learning opportunity, and understand that every time you learn something new about your users and their needs, you have discovered a new opportunity to further improve your product.

To embrace the fact that you can never have a perfect and complete understanding of your problem space, you must let go of any illusion of control. Your user’s behaviour is not deterministic and their needs are not stable. Therefore you can not expect to develop and deliver a perfect solution that they are certain to adopt exactly as your business requires.

The job descriptions for product manager roles often specify a need for someone who is comfortable dealing with a lot of ambiguity and operating in a rapidly changing environment. Embracing the limits of your understanding, and enjoying the process of refining that understanding as new information arises is therefore a valuable skill.

Similarly you will often see job descriptions that value “a bias for action”. Once you accept that you can never achieve a perfect understanding of the factors surrounding decisions that need to be made, and are humble enough to recognise mistakes promptly and correct for them, then making decisions quickly, and taking action, no longer feels risky.

Note that just because your understanding of your users, product, and the state of the business is always limited, that does not mean that you’re not entitled to an opinion, or have no right to express one. Humility does not require you to be timid, or prevent you from asserting yourself.

It is important that at any given moment you can eloquently and succinctly express your current opinion on the market opportunity, product strategy, delivery progress, and performance of your product. However you must not be overly attached to these opinions, or tie your identity or reputation to them so tightly that you become too proud to change them in light of new information. “Strong opinions, weakly held” as the saying goes.

You’re not essential

As Ken Norton wrote, in his seminal 2005 essay “How to Hire a Product Manager”, nobody asked you to show up. The role of product manager is not essential to a business. It is valuable, in that businesses with a strong product function are more likely to perform well, but if a business were to lose their entire product team overnight they would not grind to a halt in the way that they would were they to lose their sales team, or all of their engineers.

As a consequence, product managers need to continuously demonstrate their value to the business by generating real insight into their customers, communicating a clear vision for their product, and consistently delivering on that vision. Great product managers do not take their position in the business for granted. They are aware that they are disposable, and this motivates them to stay focused on delivering value.

No task is below you

Great product managers do what needs to be done in order to serve the needs of their users and the business. A lot of that work is not at all glamorous. You might be drafting T&Cs with your legal team, sitting with the support team listening to customer calls, running across town to pick up some fresh marker pens for a design sprint, or ordering food to keep the team going on the eve of a big event.

Delivering great products is not just about great design and great engineering. So much of it is about getting through all of the day to day challenges, and supporting all of the people involved. You can not afford to be picky about how you contribute. You can not afford to dismiss a task as somebody else’s problem or responsibility, or refuse to handle it because you feel that you are too important or your time is too valuable.

If something needs to be done and there is nobody responsible for doing it, nobody available to do it, or if somebody needs help and you have the capability to help them, then you need to step up without hesitation.

You can learn from anybody

One of the behaviours I’ve consistently seen in the very best product managers is that they never miss an opportunity to learn from anybody they meet, no matter their age, occupation, seniority, or social status. Be it a long discussion with a 12 year old girl about the latest mobile games, or a conversation about knitting techniques with a 90 year old woman, they recognise potential for learning in every interaction.

Everybody you meet is better than you at some task, and knows more than you about some subject. They have had experiences that have taught them lessons you have yet to learn, and made mistakes you have yet to make. If you are humble enough to recognise that, you will see the world as 7 billion learning opportunities.

This applies just as much inside your business as outside. Every company has a social hierarchy. Certain roles are held in higher esteem than others. Being a software engineer is often considered more prestigious than being a support engineer. Being an account manager for a Fortune 500 company may carry more cachet than managing SMBs. Don’t fall for this dynamic. Don’t be a snob about who you speak to and who you can learn from.

The people who fill the low prestige roles in a business are often the most interesting to talk to. They engage with the widest variety of customers, they care more about being helpful than being important, and they rarely get asked what they think. They can also be great sources of new product managers, if you’re thinking of recruiting internally.

It’s your fault

Not every product you manage will be successful. Not every launch will go well. Not every meeting will be productive. When this happens, the best thing you can do is to accept that it’s your fault, and take responsibility.

This is easier said than done, particularly when you’re new to the role, or to the team, and you’re trying to prove yourself. When it feels like circumstances have conspired against you, and all you want to do is scream or cry, it’s natural to go on the defensive. To look for excuses, or for the actions of others that contributed to the failure.

Ultimately though, it’s your fault. When you take a breath, and step back, you’ll quickly realise that there were multiple ways in which you could have handled the situation better. Red flags that you missed. Processes you didn’t follow. Dependencies you forgot to check. Research you failed to to do, or that was done badly. Your job as a product manager is to deliver a successful product, and if that didn’t happen then you have failed.

But there is good news. Owning your failures is a much better strategy for building confidence and trust amongst your team and your leadership than making excuses or pointing fingers. There are always multiple contributing factors to a product failing, and many of the other people involved are also aware of the ways in which they could have performed better, even if they are not yet ready to admit it. By absorbing the blame, and protecting them from criticism, you will make allies of them for a long time.

And when things go well? Then you give everybody else the credit. There’s no need to demand any for yourself. Great product managers do not need to have their egos stroked. The impact of their products on the business, and the respect of their peers, will speak for them.

You’re not in charge

Product management is a role of influence rather than authority. Until you start managing teams of product people, you will likely have no organisational authority over the people you rely on to deliver your product. Consequently it’s essential that you build strong relationships of trust and respect, so that they voluntarily partner with you to execute on your goals.

It should go without saying that expecting or demanding respect because you’re the product manager, because you previously worked for a high profile company, or because of the letters after your name, is a sure fire recipe for failure. Failure of both your product, and your ability to be effective in that team and business. Great product managers have no ego. They do not need to feel important, expect to tell people what to do, believe they know best, or attempt to “pull rank”. They are humble in the simplest sense, in that that do not believe themselves to be important, or better than other people.

However humility is also a powerful tool for building the trust needed to form strong bonds with your colleagues. Humility allows you to recognise your own mistakes and weaknesses, and admit to them. It allows you to recognise the competencies and strengths in others that you lack, and ask for their help. Demonstrating vulnerability, and valuing the opinions and skills of others, are core to building healthy and robust relationships.

But what if you do have some authority? Is humility still required once you become a product leader, managing a team?

If anything, it’s even more essential. I’m a big believer in servant leadership, and the clue is in the name. You are your team’s humble servant. They are your product now, and the same principles apply. You must be willing to do what needs to be done to help them succeed, build their trust and respect, and learn from them. After all, if they fail, it’s your fault.

Also, when you’re hiring product managers, you should develop a keen eye for signs of humility. Does the candidate acknowledge the limits of their understanding of a topic? Are they happy to admit when they don’t know an answer? Do they share credit for their achievements with others? Do they recognise their own assumptions and biases? Are they willing to own and discuss their failures, and what they learned from them?

Empathy is born of humility

I’ve been known to say in the past that I believe empathy to be the most important skill of a product manager. Not just empathising with users and potential customers, but also empathising with the people you work with, and the incentives and pressures under which they are operating.

However true empathy is born of humility. It starts with acknowledging that other people see the world differently from you as a result of their experiences and beliefs, and that their perspective has just as much value and validity as your own, if not more. Once you have accepted that, you can commit yourself to understanding their perspective in detail, so that you can be sympathetic to their needs, and better anticipate their actions and emotions.

How do you learn humility?

Given the importance of humility, you may be wondering how you develop it as a skill. Start by recognising that there are always ways in which you can be more humble. We all have instinctive self defence mechanisms that can kick in when under stress, and undermine our humility. Recognising when you’re on the defensive, or when you’re making assumptions about people, their value, or their opinions is a lifelong process of personal development.

Most product managers do end up developing humility, although some learn it the hard way. If you approach product management with hubris and arrogance, your users will eventually knock it out of you by showing you how wrong you were. But by that point the business may have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and staked their reputation on your overconfidence, and your credibility may not recover for many years.

So step back every now and again and ask yourself, how much of what we’re doing is based on what we know for certain to be true versus what we assume to be the case? How much of that certainty is based on information or context that continues to change over time? Who should we be talking to that may offer us great insight, but lacks sufficient credibility or visibility to be considered? And what more could you be doing to help your team, and build their trust, even if it’s unglamorous, or requires more emotional vulnerability on your part than might feel comfortable?

Learning humility will not only make you a better product manager, it will also improve your mental health. Being wrong, or failing will no longer seem so scary, which will reduce your stress levels. Decision making will become easier, because you’ll be at peace with the fact that there is no “right answer”. And your relationships with your peers will be stronger, creating a more enjoyable and supportive work environment.

The only thing you have to lose is your ego, and frankly, you’re better off without it. :)

Thor Mitchell

Written by

Product management leadership coach. Formerly CPO at Crowdcube, and Developer PM at Google. Co-organiser of ProductTank Exeter. Lover of Maps and Pantone Mugs.

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