How Adults Build Products
Applying the cognitive development of children to product management
Babies are born with exogenous attention. This means that the external world dictates what they pay attention to. A baby could be playing with the best toy ever, but when another toy drops next to them, their attention uncontrollably shifts to the new shiny object. In The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik says that babies can “become captivated by interesting things that they don’t care for, like an unusually bright light or loud noise. They cry and fuss but seem unable to look away, like adults watching a horror movie.”
Gopnik explains that as children grow older, they develop endogenous attention, the ability to control their own attention. They become able to keep their focus on a ball even if a gorilla walks into the room. Or they can choose to give up the beloved ball, if they are persuaded through bribery, threat, or some other measure.
Maintaining endogenous attention is critical in all challenging jobs. A pilot must know where to focus their attention even if a loud alarm is going off in the cock pit. In bounded domains, there is a clear set of rules for where to focus. A pilot is trained where to look for potential danger.
But in unbounded domains where there is no rule book, learning how to control your own attention is an endeavor in itself. When your playing field has no clear parameters and the future is ripe with surprises, the allure of responding reactively to your environment is especially strong.
Kids make cognitive development look easy. Adults, when navigating unbounded domains, must work hard to develop the brain functions they take for granted in other aspects of their life.
Many companies behave more like children than adults. They chase shiny objects and squirrels instead of staying focused on creating differentiated value. Maintaining your company’s ability to control its own attention, I believe, is a chief meta-responsibility of product management. And the obstacles in doing so are insidious.
Here are some ways PMs can manage the attention of their organization.
1. Resist shiny objects and squirrels.
Building differentiated value requires relentlessly iterating towards a product that fits customer, business, and technical parameters. It’s a long grind, and often takes longer than people think.
When company leaders get bored waiting for actual progress, making a shiny object or chasing a squirrel is an endorphin rush and might reduce pressure in the short term.
A shiny object is a feature or prototype that excites executives or investors, but doesn’t deliver actual value. As a PM, I like to make shiny objects to inspire the company around a direction I feel the company should go, even knowing that the shiny object itself is problematic in its form. But if a PM makes shiny objects to gain political points without a larger purpose, they are enabling the baby-like distractibility of their executive team.
Companies must be able to quickly pivot their attention when the situation demands it. However, you’re “chasing a squirrel” when you reach for an opportunity that does not build off your core competency, like signing a big partnership that forces your to create one-off custom work.
If you’re lucky, you’ll miss catching the squirrel. If you do catch it, it will fragment your focus and muddle your position in the marketplace.
2. Manage the tension between changing the world and adapting to the world.
Steering your company clear of obvious distractions is the first step to maintaining endogenous attention, but it gets more nuanced from here.
For good reason, companies aspire to be “customer-driven.” Adapting your product based on user feedback is critical. In this sense, having your attention impacted by your external environment is necessary.
But customer behavior and market dynamics are not immutable. Great products change user behavior and create new markets. By over-reacting to external feedback, you end up building a faster horse instead of a car, as they say.
Product-driven companies listen to market signal, process it, and then build things beyond the imagination of their customers. The key is to process the external input, filter it, and make a bet that reflects comprehensive situational awareness. This is how you can reorganize the world around your product.
3. Earn the confidence to place your own bets.
As I described in The Product Management Triangle, product managers sit at the intersection between business, technology, and customers. Consequently, PMs can apply “full-triangle” thinking to optimally drive their product forward. Thus, PMs, or other folks with a full understanding of their company, should sit in the drivers seat crafting initiatives.
Yet, a PM’s orientation is shaped by input from their cross-functional partners. PMs rely on their teammates and stakeholders to understand customer, market, and technical conditions.
The easy way for product managers to gain the confidence of their peers is to do what they ask for. PMs often build roadmaps that diplomatically mirror the product requests of their stakeholders.
But stakeholders are less qualified to make product decisions than the PM, or at least it should be that way. Each stakeholder may know more than the PM about a facet of the business, but they know less about how the full puzzle comes together. To build impactful products, product teams must call their own shots.
Consequently, a PM needs to earn confidence, not just in their responsiveness to the needs of their organization, but in their ability to make the best bets. Just as you should build stuff beyond the imagination of your customers, you should transcend the imagination of your stakeholders.
I created Double-Loop, in part, to help PMs earn the confidence of their organization. PMs use Double-Loop to share the narrative of their iteration process. PMs are scholars of how the world reacts to product changes, and Double-Loop expresses that. When stakeholders can follow the process of building a continually improving product, they viscerally feel the expertise of the people driving it. This makes stakeholders less likely to prescribe how the product should change. It gives the product team the freedom to experiment at the cutting edge of their knowledge; that is, operate like an adult with full control of their own attention.