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Zen and the art of Product Management

Timeless questions for Product Managers

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“Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past”, Robert M. Pirsig wrote in his 1974 book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

The profound reflections of the American writer invite us to dive into some of life’s most essential questions. While I’ve only got to read this master piece quite recently (thanks to the suggestion of my friend and fellow Product Owner Isabelle Ross), the book has left a deep impression on me, making me reflect, attempt to dust off and apply to my profession some of the universal and timeless questions presented on its pages.

On Uncertainty

Pirsig discusses about uncertainty and the pursuit of truth — “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

Product Managers live in a constant rollercoaster of challenging assumptions. If there is something close to a comfort zone in Product world, that surely must be the status of uncertainty. Of course we aim to be data-driven and are constantly battling between predictions and assumptions, but without the concept of “doubt” we would be losing the essence of our role. How boring would be starting every quarter knowing with absolute confidence what we are going to deliver in 3 months? I can’t imagine even a day when I would know for sure what will happen by the time of going home. That uncertainty is precisely one of the things that makes working at Product addictive.

On Challenging Assumptions

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” Solutionizing is a familiar trap in Product world; and easy truths are frequent recipes for failure. Focusing on customers’ problems, not on solutions, should be at the core of any Product effort. It is easy to look at existing solutions and decode the problems from there. It is not so easy to discover the essential problems, those pains that are still unhealed and perhaps even unnoticed: “Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships.” Only those hardships will lead us to innovate.

On Innovation

The author elaborates on his experience as a professor and how he challenged what he perceived as a status of stuckness on the educational system: “As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.[…] Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything — from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.”

Product innovation is often linked to challenging the status quo. Companies perceived as innovators like Apple have dozens of examples in which they have ignored what was taken for granted and brought new perspectives into solving customers’ problems, often unveiling “unknown” customer problems (who thought not having 1000 songs in your pocket was a problem in 2001 when the iPod launched?).

On Learning by Doing

Nobody was born a Product Manager, and still nowadays very few people studied or even intended to become Product Managers at the beginning of their careers. Pirsig reflects about the parallelisms of technology and his own life: “You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”. Many of us have become Product Managers “by accident”, because the circumstances simply made us Product Managers without us noticing it or because we found how our experience in other fields enabled us to do it. On this point, the author elaborates on an horizontal drift to allow progression that many Product people may recognize in their own career paths: “We’re living in topsy-turvy times, and I think that what causes the topsy-turvy feeling is inadequacy of old forms of thought to deal with new experiences. I’ve heard it said that the only real learning results from hang-ups, where instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know”.

A great book with references to “accidental” Product Managers is The Practitioners Guide to Product Management by Jock Busuttil. In his book, Jock tells us how he became Product Manager “by doing” multiple jobs in a startup, despite his original career path started in something so unrelated as being a RAF pilot.

On Attitude

“Is it hard?’ Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes that’s hard.” says Pirsig in a conversation between the protagonist (a depiction of himself) and his son. A lot has been written on the value of attitude vs aptitude for Product Managers, the second being something you can develop or polish if you have enough of the former.

It’s about the Journey, not the Destination

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive”. A secondary risk of solutionizing (the first being that, well, you may be solving the wrong problem) is that you are setting definite goals. A Product is never fully completed, in the sense that its performance / engagement / or whatever objective it pursues, can be better understood as a process, not as a solution. If anything, we can call it an outcome, but not a solution. It is not a static artefact, as it can always be optimized and iterated on. It is that unbounded outcome and it’s endless ways and possibilities that make the journey exciting. Because, as Pirsig also says: “For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.”

On fellow Product People

If there is something I truly enjoy about the Product role is the challenging and discussion with peers and professionals from related fields. It is that peer challenging that push us towards constant learning and improving in what we do. That’s what I hope has made you read this article. In any case, Product Management is still a young career and compared to other professions still a small community. Pirsig reminded me of that feeling when you meet other Product Managers by chance in non-work related circumstances: “When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event.”

On Change (and the need of it)

Familiarity kills innovation. An original sin of Product Managers is to fall in love with the solutions they have brought to light and to forget about the problems they initially aimed to solve. Our crafts make us proud and that is only normal. But that proudness makes us blind to the ever evolving customer needs, and that is often what allows competitors to jump in and to take a piece, if not the whole cake. Who would ever want a mobile without a keyboard?, said many now-extinct mobile manufacturers in the early 2000s. It is often difficult to admit it’s time to let go, to allow room for fresh thoughts and perspectives, but that’s what Product Managers should try to do every now and then. Pirsig summarizes this very well with: “(What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness).Familiarity can blind you too.”

On Humbleness

It is not only our Products that need constant challenge. Information and knowledge are being generated at a pace that humanity has never seen before. Theories in fields like physics rarely last for centuries as they used to, since the globalization and accessibility of knowledge, combined with the advance of science and technology, allow us to discard, validate or override hypothesis at an unprecedented speed. More than ever we need to challenge ourselves, what we know, and especially what we think we know: “If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened.” And for that: “The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”

Another beautifully humbling quote from the book: “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.” Here Pirsig makes us ponder on the vastness of knowledge, and on how little of an expert in anything we can become nowadays.

On Embracing Failure

Success and failure are not absolute truths. In fact I dare to say they are not truths at all, since at the very extremes, a person that succeeds at everything will be failing at failure, and the other way around, Sisyphus was extremely successful at failure! There’s always something to take away from the worst of our failings, and it is only by acknowledging what went wrong that we will get into a cycle of learning and improving. Robert M. Pirsig hints us the importance of understanding this when it comes to validating hypothesis by means of experimentation: “The TV scientist who mutters sadly, “The experiment is a failure; we have failed to achieve what we had hoped for,” is suffering mainly from a bad script writer. An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.”

On Taking Risks

“One thing about pioneers that you don’t hear mentioned is that they are invariably, by their nature, mess-makers.” In Product it is important to combine iteration with bold change. While the first helps us optimising on existing solutions, it is likely that only the second will help us unveiling new opportunities. Thus it is only normal (even expected) for Product Managers to go wild and make some mess every now and then. We just need to make sure our mess is measured and acknowledged, since “If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you.”

And to finish up, whether you are Product person or not, please do not let the hurry take the joy of the journey away from you: have fun.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

Thanks for your time, and as always, feel free to share thoughts, ideas or suggestions if you have enjoyed the read. And if so, also kindly tap ❤️ below :)

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