Walt Whitman would have made for a great Product Manager

Marcus Aurelius, George Washington, Walt Whitman, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson would have all made for great product managers. Product Management is more than a theoretical construct or rather a field of academic inquiry. Of course, there is no denying that product management means adhering to a set of rules. However, in doing so, we are pigeonholing ourselves to the ordinary Product Managers out there who fail to achieve their full potential.

Product Management is a state of being. It has parallels in the philosophy of Stoicism. The reason why I imagine Roosevelt or Emerson would have been great product managers is that they were stoics themselves. There are four fundamental pillars of the Stoic philosophy — Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance. Let us look at how embracing these four precepts of stoicism aligns with the art of Product Management.

Wisdom

We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen more than we talk”, Zeno of Elea said. In the same logic since we have two eyes, we are obligated to read and observe more than we talk.

As product managers, it is key that we study and keep our minds open always. We should not only be humble practitioners of this art but also seek out great teachers. We should always be reading and we cannot stop training.

At the age of 25, I quit my full-time corporate job to dedicate myself to building an ed-tech product that uses advanced analytics to tailor the learning environments to a student’s unique traits. With no experience in building a software product, I embarked on a 4-year journey that taught me a lot of things. As the person leading the product development and management, I inevitably became the “ideas man”. Besides me, the team comprised of two developers, a UI designer, and two content managers. In the end, we built the product exactly the way I had imagined it. Initially, we saw some success, however, soon enough, I found myself like a captain trying to save a sinking ship.

The Product Manager is not the “ideas man”. I have seen this perception in some of the companies that I later worked for too. If you are a Product Manager, take a step back, embrace the Stoic virtue of wisdom by slowing down, being deliberate, and finding the wisdom you need.

More specifically understand the core pain points, empathize, and understand the real problems behind what people ask you to do. Differentiate the problem from the symptom. Finally, ask yourself the question, Did I really solve their problem?

The goal is not just to accumulate information, but the right kind of information. It’s the key facts, standing out from the background noise, that we need to absorb. It’s why we have to be diligent in filtering out the signal from the noise. A great PM gathers requirements and ideas from everywhere, by everywhere I mean everywhere. Thereafter he collects them and organizes them.

Courage

If something goes horribly wrong during development and everything grinds to a halt, and the problem is product-based, it might fall on your shoulders to get things running again. When different teams come to a stalemate, figure out the best way to begin negotiations and get development back on track.

Also, do not be afraid of failure and condition your team to let failure be normal. In failures, could be the origins of your next victory. Your actions as a product manager should never be guided by fear of failure.

As a product manager, he or she has to ensure that every single person on your team is not hindered. Empower them to do incredibly great work aligned with your company’s goals. Great products then get created. If it involves having to speak with senior leadership, having the courage to speak with them.

Justice

You’re in a people-based role, so treat your teammates as people. Not caring about bruised egos or wounded feelings is another recipe for disaster. Treat your team right, and they’ll treat your product right.

They’re choosing to spend their talents building a great product with you because they care about the vision. Take that for granted and you might see them searching for a better place for those talents. High employee turnover is highly disruptive to product development and builds a bad reputation for your company.

Moreover, as a Product Manager, influencing without authority is a huge part of your role. How can you expect to influence people and earn their trust if you haven’t been treating them well in times of conflict?

Tap into your Product Manager’s empathy, and don’t disregard feelings. However, as other people are externals, beyond our direct control, Stoics have to pursue their welfare

Temperance

As a product manager, you will often find yourself collaborating with a lot of people working closely together on something they all are heavily invested in and conflict is almost inevitable

During development, compromises have to be made. For example, while working on the first version of a new product a decision will need to be made between investing more in design early on, or focusing solely on functionality. The designers and engineers will often have differing strong opinions on this. Designers may want to create something more aesthetic to gauge the market response, whereas the engineering team may be campaigning to put all resources into the technology.

I do believe in conflicts and there in conflict resolution lies progress. It is a common fallacy that people should not get involved in conflicts and the conflicts are shouting matches. Conflict is a disagreement or an argument people are having.

Take a holistic and philosophical view when resolving conflicts. Speak to all parties involved individually, and get a 360 view of the conflict. Have a retrospective on what went wrong, why, and brainstorm possible solutions. Appear as impartial as possible, so no one feels like you’re taking sides. Brushing over the conflict and just trying to get everyone to play nice, without investigating the root cause, is a recipe for disaster. Do not run away from conflicts, thrive in them, and resolve them. Therin lies progress.

If you sense that there’s a minor conflict bubbling up between teams/teammates, don’t let it fester under the surface. Without being aggressive or overly confrontational, if you see a chink in the armor, give it a poke and see what falls out. Speak to those involved with the suspected conflict individually, and assess whether further action needs to be taken.

Interested in products and data science. Likes to talk about it.