Why Admitting Ignorance the Key to Success as a Product Manager

Lessons from “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Harari

As I turned the pages of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, I came across a chapter where the author analyzes the reason behind the rise of European superpowers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The Romans, Chinese, Persians and other Asian empires were convinced that they knew everything, with the effect that maps were drawn in such imaginary detail that you couldn’t see any empty spaces in them.

“...Unfamiliar areas were simply left out, or filled with imaginary monsters and wonders. These maps had no empty spaces. They gave the impression of a familiarity with the entire world.”

In contrast, the British and Europeans admitted ignorance and drew maps that were not so crowded – there were lots of empty spaces on the maps in areas that they didn’t know anything about. This was a clear indication that they were ignorant of large parts of the world.

Europeans admitted that they don’t know anything about certain parts of the world, that there is some unknown land beyond the ocean, beyond the tip of the nearest landmass that needs further exploring.

With this mindset in place and the imperial drive to “explore and conquer,” Europeans sent forth expeditions to far off corners of the world, convinced that they could learn something new, conquer distant lands if they just explored without fear. America, South Africa, Pacific and Indian oceans, Australia, other smaller Asian territories, North and South Pole were discovered this way.

“The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia.”

Columbus, still a medieval man, believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps and was convinced that he knew the entire world. He found America, but he believed that he had landed in the East Indies and thus named the locals ‘Indians’.

But Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America, was convinced that they had discovered an entirely new continent. His name became immortalized in the country we now know as The United States of America, simply because he had the guts to say, “we don’t know”!

European scholars and geographers began to admit that their theories were not perfect and that there were important things that they did not know. They wanted to search for new knowledge at breakneck speeds.

Thus drawing world maps with a lot of empty spaces is an indication of the development of scientific mindset. We may think we know everything about the whole world, but that psyche won’t let you discover new continents.

Drawing empty maps as a Product Manager

As we interviewed a few candidates this month for a Product role within our team, we came across a diverse lot. Some candidates were knowledgable in their domains but feared to open up completely and were thrown off-guard by unexpected questions and froze, some were hesitant in the beginning but got right into it as they slowly but surely analyzed the off-the-beaten-path questions, while there were others who supposedly knew the answer to each and every question with a kind of cockiness that made them instantly unfavourable in our eyes.

Who would you choose in such a scenario — a candidate who allegedly knows answers to all kinds of questions and has the ‘I know everything’ attitude? Or a candidate who might not know everything, admits ignorance in certain areas but has the tenacity to work through vague ambiguous problems as if they were a piece of art?

The answer might depend on the context, but I believe we as Product Managers need to admit ignorance everyday in order to:

  • learn new things, concepts and expand horizons
  • Understand and accept different perspectives
  • Go forthwith and explore uncharted territories and markets
  • Bring the team together in order to harness their collective intelligence

The moment we become complacent in our areas of expertise, there would be the 15th century Europeans of Product Management who would take the first opportunity to explore new painkillers and vitamins in the technological space. There would be those who would want to learn an upcoming industry trend and apply it within their current company or better still open a new venture with some other upstarts.

Product Management is not a zero-sum game. The pie doesn’t remain static with the same diameter throughout. The diameter of the pie increases as you explore more, find new use-cases, find innovative solutions to old jobs-to-be-done, target new markets and apply trends from obscure industries to your domain.

And hence by admitting ignorance, we as Product Managers can conquer new turfs as the Europeans did in the 15th and 16th century. Those who thought they knew everything or were never interested in learning got relegated to the sidelines for the next many centuries and are just recovering from their ancestors’ mistakes.

Are you with me? Does drawing empty maps lead to psychological and ideological breakthroughs?

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