Inside the mind of a Creative Product Leader

The 3-floor-mindset

If you are a person who cares deeply about building beautiful products that delights customers, then using the 3-floors-mindset will help you become the creative product leader your team deserves.

So we’re on the same page, what is creativity and who is a product leader?

Creativity: for some reason people attribute creativity to designer or artists but really creativity is just the ability to transcend traditional ways of thinking to develop new and original ideas. It’s available to all of us.

Product leader: anyone who is a proponent for building products customers will love and isn’t willing to ship junk is a product leader. Developers, designers, product managers, data scientists, are all product leaders.

This blog is broken down into 3 sections that build the 3-floor-mindset, where learnings from each floor will equip you to become a better, more creative product leader.

Floor 1 — Ignite Curiosity

Learn from kids

Many people live their lives with something I call the creative fallacy — a belief that creativity is something you are endowed with from birth, otherwise you are forever imprisoned to the un-creative corner. Fortunately, there is ample evidence that this isn’t true.

We’re all born rather creative and very curious. Kids use this curiosity to learn about the world around them — each day they try to piece it together. If you have kids, you know they ask a lot of questions; and if you don’t, recall your own childhood or this video should give a good indication.

Unfortunately as we get older, this curiosity can be beaten out of us by busy parents and teachers. The blame doesn’t rest on their shoulders entirely. For that, we have the industrial era to blame — organised and built with cogs and replaceable parts (you and me).

In order for the industrial machine to work, you had to be less you, and more like a lego brick— predictable, unoriginal, and most importantly replaceable.

I remember when I was at school, I traded my free time to complete homework assignments for hopes of getting an A. Not because I was particularly curious about a topic, in fact I’m pretty sure I didn’t even understand all of it, but because I was lead to believe that good grades was the way into higher classes and eventually into higher education.

Summer holidays excited me for the wrong reasons. It most certainly wasn’t about having 6 weeks off to learn something new or to go deeper into a subject that interested me. It was 6 weeks off to do absolutely NOTHING or NOWT in Yorkshire vernacular, where I grew up.

What I was getting at school was education (forced), rather than learning (voluntary). If I was taught to be curious, I would have spent my childhood doing what kids do best, asking questions and probing trying to figure out how things work.

The infinite learner

As adults, we rely on convention and what we’re told by others because that seems a whole lot easier than breaking things down to think for ourselves. We let our past, our history, our education decide what we are and aren’t capable of doing.

For me that epiphany came in Summer 2011 whilst travelling with a friend after my exchange year in Canada. One day he randomly blurted out, “most summers I read about 15–20 books”. My jaw dropped because up until this point, I hadn’t voluntarily read any books except those required for school.

Deciding to challenge myself that day I stepped into a book store and walked right to the “Most popular books this week” section and bought my first book — The The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I enjoyed it enough to go back to the bookstore another time.

Not knowing much about books or what genre I would enjoy, I picked up Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (again from the “Most popular books this week”). If anyone has read it, you can anticipate the challenge the faced me given it was my 2nd voluntary read. At the end of 400-some pages, I had a 100 questions that I didn’t have the answers to — and most importantly it had lit the fire of curiosity in me again.

Enough to start questioning if Structural Engineering (the Masters I was about to complete) was something I wanted to pursue long term. Turned out I wasn’t curious enough about it; what excited me was technology and consumer-software products, it was after all the era that saw the rise of the iPhone and consumer-focused start ups. So I got a job working in product management in London.

There was lots happening in the industry as most companies were busy digitalising and moving desktop software to the cloud and trying to figure out value based pricing. The high-school-me would have walked away with 4 weeks off with NOWT to do attitude, but the newly-curious-me had other plans. With no background in finance and the willingness to learn, I spent days and weeks watching YouTube videos, reading books and consuming many articles on product bundling and pricing strategies. Endowed with this new knowledge, I ended up creating the foundation of SaaS pricing models for many products that I managed at the time that are still in use today.

Key takeaway: you don’t need any formal education, or previous experience in a topic, just curiosity and yearning to be an infinite learner — by doing so, you open yourself to so many more possibilities. When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Thinking for ourselves requires that we understand and reason from first principles.

Floor 2 — Reason from first principles

Do you want to play as cook or chef?

You need to decide as a product leader, if you want to be the chef or the cook. (I’m borrowing this analogy from Tim Urban’s post)

Chef, someone who has the ability to create recipes because he or she understands the fundamentals of cooking, how different spices work together in harmony, what vegetables or meats to go together. Chefs are forever trying to create new recipes by a tremendous amount of experimentation and exploration. The chef is said to be reasoning from first principles. He thinks for himself.

Cook, on the other hand is someone who’s very good at copying what has already been done. There are of course different levels of cooks. Some are completely by the book, measuring precisely every ingredient; some get confident enough to swap out an ingredient or two. Few might even get a little creative by combing two recipes. For cooks, even if they manage to create something new, they won’t understand how or why it worked because they are borrowing from the work of others.

The spectrum looks a little bit like this:

How this applies to product leaders

As a product leader when you play cook — taking what already exists and improving on it, you outsource all your thinking to someone else — you end up living in the shadows of others.

Those that came before you, must have had their own views of how things work at a specific point in time. They add assumption blocks with time to build the tower of assumptions. With a world of cooks adding on top of each other, the collective tower grows.

When it’s your turn, and you decide to play cook, you add your new assumption on top of the existing tower without questioning it.

If instead you step back, start reasoning from first principles, and look at those assumptions made by those before you, you’ll find they either no longer make sense or that they never really did, and people just blindly copied everyone else. When you cut through these flawed analogies you’ll see what is possible.

Some examples

  1. Tesla on door handles

Instead of copying what others have been doing for years. They instead asked what should a door handle be? Does it need to stick out all the time? Can we make it flush with the rest of the car body? Why has it always been like this?

They managed to redefine the door handle twice already. Once for the Model S and again for Model 3.

Same car door handles across multiple makes. Tesla redesigning the door handle.

2. Apple and Samsung on smartphone keyboards

Steve Jobs during the launch of the iPhone elaborated on how they ended up with the product. They didn’t start by saying, “Right, so people seem to have gotten use to this kind of keyboard more than that kind, and everyone seems to struggle with hitting the right key on their keyboards — so let’s get creative and make the best phone keyboard the world has seen!”

Same phone keyboard across multiple makes and models. Apple and Samsung redesigning the phone.

Instead they looked at the existing phones and realised they are all so rigid with the same keyboard even though different applications that run on the phone may require a different interface.

What happens if you think of a great idea some time from now, you’re stuck with the product you already shipped.

They simply asked, “What should a mobile device be?” and in their reasoning from ground up, a physical keyboard didn’t end up as part of the plan at all. It didn’t take a genius to come up with the design of the iPhone — it’s actually pretty logical — it just took the ability to not copy.

The real power of first-principles thinking is moving away from incremental improvements and into the world of progressive possibilities. When we take what already exists and improve on it, we are in the shadow of others — we inherit a world that conforms to what they think, their conventions and their possibilities, not ours.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at what others are doing. In fact analogies are beneficial — they can help make a complex problem easier to communicate and understand. However, blindly copying others without your own reasoning would be foolish. Analogies can’t replace understanding. While it’s easier on your brain to reason by analogy, you’re more likely to come up with better answers when you reason by first principles.

“It’s just as intellectually lazy to believe everything you see, as it is to deny everything you see.”

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

As we get older, we start relying on convention and what we’re told by others because that’s a whole lot easier than breaking things down into first principles and thinking for ourselves.

Key takeaway: First-principles reasoning cuts through dogma and removes the blinders. We can see the world as it is and see what is possible. We move away from incremental improvements and into the world of progressive possibilities. We stop living in the shadow of others. We end up becoming the chef.

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

— Harrington Emerson

Floor 3 — Work like an artist

Do you think Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night on his first attempt and became famous over night?

I highly doubt he did. How many not-so-good paintings did he have to paint before he figured out how to make the one that would be a hit?

The industrial era required us to be right. Every time. Make an error in the spreadsheet, you’re out. Make a mistake in the production line, you lose your job. Argue with your Boss, you’re fired.

But the world an artist dreams of creating doesn’t exist yet, it has no right answers. To be creative is to be on the frontier, to invent the next thing, the things for which there isn’t a manual or playbook. If there was, someone would have done it already.

You don’t need reassurance

Kids need reassurance because they lack experience and they don’t know what to expect. We reassure them because we try to protect them. Seeking reassurance isn’t helpful to those of us who work to make change happen, to challenge the status quo for a better future. We do things that might not work which means exactly that — they might not work.

We have no choice but to trust ourselves to lead the way. Reassurance is futile — it’s a short-term feel-good effort. It shifts the focus — from generously and doggedly following the practice of an artist — to making sure we are successful.

No one owes us anything. No one owes us an applause or thanks. The feeling of being owed destroys our ability to be generous and creative. A standing ovation is hardly worthy if the audience is obliged to do so. Working in anticipation forces us to search for reassurance and the perfect outcome, and away from work where self-trust and generosity are valued. It’s only when we lack confidence and trust in the work we do, we seek external feedback and validation. Gratitude isn’t a bad thing, but believing we are owed gratitude is.

When we do creative work for generous reasons, and not for reciprocity, we stop believing that we are owed anything by others. We do the work, simply because we care.

Do you trust yourself enough to commit to engaging with a product idea regardless of the chance of success?

When you’re ready, cut the wood

Your job as a product leader is to be on the frontier, a place that doesn’t have a recipe book.

Using the 3-floors-mindset: being an infinite learner, a chef who reasons from first principles and thinks for himself/herself and works like an artist, is ready to mark the piece of wood and start cutting. Once you cut the wood, there will be many who can help you improve and refine it.

The hardest job is getting the piece of wood and knowing how it should be cut. The job of the creative product leader.

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Varun Mittal

Varun Mittal

Sometimes I write about things. Product Manager @Finn.no

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