The Art of Product
Or how to become a better human?
Tech is everywhere. Slowly and indeed, it has penetrated our lives. It has made things easier, connected us ever so more, yet many of us find it mysterious, especially the people who built these products.
There is a widespread perception that the creators of such tools, working on their system in dimly lit rooms, looking at three different monitors, were doing social distancing long before the pandemic. It’s a portrayal all too common in movies and TV series. The builder finds comfort with their systems than interacting with others.
Some of it is true, at least for me. For the longest time, I would prefer programming over social events. I loved to interact with my machine instead of people because they are more straightforward. They follow my instruction, work on pure logic, no pesky emotion to complicate things further.
Yet, as I grew, I started encountering ambiguous problem statements, and doing a reasonable job building solutions for them led me to interact with the users more.
Over time I learned that product building is a very humane activity. It requires you to understand, plan, communicate and iterate on the ideas you have. You can’t sit in an ivory tower and make presumptions. The solutions that make an impact need you to roll your sleeves and get involved.
Though what’s interesting for me is how the same principles for better product building are applicable for becoming a better human, and some of these principles are applicable no matter what you decide to do in the future.
Letting Go of Hubris:
When building a solution to your user’s problems, you need to let go of ego and understand the domain. More often than not, the users have been working in that area for longer than you have. Even if you are an expert, they might be able to share a perspective that would help you create something exceptional.
One of the biggest problems plaguing matured organizations is believing that they know everything about space. Those areas get disrupted when a new entrant challenges the old beliefs because they keep their eyes and ears open. They let go of the curiosity that got them there in the first place.
Letting go of your hubris is regarded as “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen. In life, do lend an ear to someone before reaching a judgment. It doesn’t matter how different or wrong they are, according to you. At least show empathy and hear them out. You might learn something in the process, and if not, they will appreciate being heard.
Communicating your Point of View:
Like the real world, product owners usually work as equals with other stakeholders. They don’t have any direct power over them. Hence they need to be able to convince and project their ideas so others can come on the same page.
This makes the job quite exciting. Leading by title is easy, but getting people to follow your idea on merit is something else. You come up with a hypothesis or a point of view, and by working with others, you arrive at a vision that helps you achieve it.
You can’t do this in a silo; you need to communicate with your counterparts to make it a reality. You can’t order them and make them fall in line.
The same applies to our routine lives; we seldom have power over anyone. Try ordering your teenage child; it rarely works. Rather, it leads to rebellion. Instead of commanding, try having a conversation, listen to them, try articulating your concern, treat them with respect, and you’ll see that they will reciprocate.
A successful product owner is always taking bets. They are purposing hypotheses, working out the details, and executing them. They aren’t always right, but they know it’s crucial to take chances. They won’t evolve the product without trying out new things, thus not keeping their organization relevant.
Their job is to run many experiments to learn as much as possible; movement in the area is important than being right. Also, the word here is “experiment,” not full-fledged product development. You want to test things out and take appropriate steps based on them.
The day a product has stopped taking bets, you can be sure its days are numbered.
Same way in life, we box ourselves into a role or a stereotype. We are afraid to go out of our comfort zone. It’s about giving a talk at a conference or simply asking out a girl you like. Taking bets is vital for one to evolve as well. Yes, you’ll get rejected by the girl, but eventually, you’ll become better and find the one you are looking for.
Don’t be a Hostage of Your Belief:
One of the essential traits to have is to be able to change one’s mind. To question one’s belief, and when you see specific evidence that shows otherwise, you need to be able to let go of your long-held beliefs. This is how science gets done, and it applies to most things in life.
We are so married to our ideas that we treat them as an extension of ourselves, so an attack on them is an attack on yourself. Thinking in this way makes it next to impossible to change your mindset even when the evidence is there. You stick to the sinking ship instead of pivoting while you have the time.
Not changing your idea when you see the evidence is a deadly sin for a product owner, given they are taking bets. They need to be able to let go of their idea when they see it’s not working out.
We have many beliefs passed down from our environment in real life, and some we learn at different stages of our lives. It’s necessary to keep reexamining them to see if they still hold up. If they aren’t, we should be able to change them. It’s a superpower if you can do this, as it will allow you to do new things without getting too attached to your existing ideas.
There are many other principles to successful product building, but these are the most important ones transferable to any other field or area of life.
If you practice some of them, I am sure it will change the outlook of your life as they have done for me.
The art of product management essentially translates to the art of living a good life.