The One Skill Most Product Managers Ignore
June 17, 2019

The One Skill Most Product Managers Ignore

by Brian de Haaff

Writer. Actor. Poet. These roles are universally thought of as creative. But what if I told you that “product manager” should be on the same list? You might not agree at first, thinking product management is too technical to be aligned with artists. And while technical work does play a large part, product management goes deeper than that.

The best product managers not only lead with practical solutions — they also lead with creativity.

After all, you need imagination to build what has not been built before. You need ingenuity to set strategy and then capture, prioritize, and implement new ideas. It is your job to define the future of the product — this means pairing the practical with the creative. And it takes bold thinking to cast a vision and inspire others to work towards it.

But it can be tough to tap into this way of thinking when you are bogged down in the everyday. You barely have time to think about your strategic vision for the product when you are busy completing the tactical work. You want to build a meaningful product but there is so much noise in the way — you think you might miss that genius creative idea even if it did hit.

The thing is, creativity does not come from some elusive muse or lightning strike of inspiration.

Creative thinking is not a one-off moment — it is a skill that you can build. Like anything, it just takes disciplined focus and some effort. The more you flex the muscle, the more you will find your mind open to what is new and fresh. Here is how to bring more creativity into your product management work:

You cannot solve what you do not understand. At Aha! we are fortunate — our customers are just like us (product managers and marketers) so we understand them well. But not every product manager has this luxury. So, spend time thinking about the problem your customer is facing and how they are using your product. What is it like to be them? Every time you are working through a product decision, do your best to role play the experience as your own customer.

See patterns
Most problems have patterns. What do you see over and over again in your customer challenges? You might think you need to visualize big data to do this. Yes, data can help you here. But raw numbers do not always show the full picture — so look to other sources. Jot down notes in customer calls, track responses to surveys or emails, and pay attention to your own roleplay answers. Over time, you will begin to see the patterns more quickly and more clearly.

Be open
Ideas always spark more ideas. This is true for good ideas and bad ideas too. Create a judgment-free space, such as an ideas portal, for teammates and customers to submit ideas. Then look at every single one — even the most outrageous suggestions. Do not let your confidence in your own direction allow you to put up blinders to other solutions that might work.

Talk openly
The echo chamber is real. And it is an easy trap to fall into — whether you work at a big company or a smaller one with fewer folks in your immediate circle. Do not just talk to your team. Whenever you can, bring cross-functional colleagues into your conversations. If your company embraces the concept of formal product teams, all the better. These teammates likely have perspectives and new ideas that you never thought of.

Look up
I wrote earlier that creativity takes disciplined focus and effort. And I know that most product managers are busy, busy, busy. But you need to look up from your everyday tasks. Block off time to be creative. Maybe this means saying “no” to a few meetings and maybe it means saying “no” to a few requests. No one else is going to make room for creative thinking for you, so pull yourself up out of the weeds and look up to the blue-sky future of your product.

Being struck by a creative vision is a rare phenomenon — you need to work hard every day to find that vision for yourself.

I struggle with carving out time for this kind of thinking too. This is one reason why I have set “Wonder Wednesdays” each week on my calendar. I avoid meetings (unless absolutely necessary) and try to tackle a big problem or think through a new concept. You might think, well that is easy for you — as the CEO of Aha! you can always set your own schedule. That is true and also not. My time is consumed with the team, customers, and candidates.

Still, I had to claim the space to make creativity part of my weekly work. It is just that important. And even if it is just a half hour a day, you can claim that space as well. The future is depending on it.

How do you stay creative at work?

The road to building better products starts here.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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