Learning is crucial for us product people. As our products change and eventually mature, we must change the way we manage them. As our jobs change, and we have to grow into them and acquire new skills. Additionally, product management is a comparatively young profession that is still evolving; new models and techniques emerge. This article discusses how embracing a growth mindset helps you succeed as a product professional.
Embrace a Growth Mindset
Learning something new requires the right mindset or attitude. If you believe that you lack talent or are not smart enough, then you make it hard—if not impossible—for yourself to acquire new knowledge, skills, and behaviours. For example, I never used to think myself as somebody who is good at writing, and I wasn’t particularly good at it at school. But with effort, resilience, and patience, as well as the guidance from others, I have managed to become a reasonably skilled writer.
The same is true for my product management expertise: Acquiring it has taken me many years, making plenty of mistakes, learning from other product people, and reading more books and articles than I can remember. I certainly don’t feel that I am done yet. I continue to learn new things and deepen my understanding.
Now, you might say that’s just a sign that I lack talent. But achievement requires effort, and the better we want to become at something, the more effort is required. I remember once asking my saxophone teacher how he became so good, and he simply replied, “practicing eight hours per day”. Charlie Parker, one of the most famous and arguable best saxophonists ever, took this further and practiced up to 15 hours per day.
I am not suggesting that innate talent doesn’t exist, but its role is often overemphasised. This leads to a fixed mindset, where people see themselves as good or bad at something—be it writing, singing, drawing, or product management—and they believe that there is not much they can do about it. But the opposite is true: A “person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable)” and “it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training”, as Carol Dweck—who coined the term growth mindset—writes in her aptly named book Mindset.
Instead of labelling yourself and thinking that you are talented, smart, or clever (or possibly the opposite), see yourself as malleable and adaptable. With the right effort, you will learn new skills and deepen existing ones, you will develop and grow. By doing so, you adopt a growth mindset.
Appreciate Failure and Make the Right Effort
Learning a new skill can be fun and easy. But it can also be very challenging. Often, it involves stepping outside your comfort zone and making mistakes. Think of what it was like to learn to ride a bicycle, for example. I remember crashing numerous times until I was able to stay upright on the bike, riding wobbly and tentatively at first and slowly getting better over time.
The same holds for product management: When you create a product strategy for the first time, for instance, you are likely to make plenty of mistakes. You may not use the right research and validation techniques; your target group may be too big and heterogenous; the value proposition may not be concise and compelling; the standout features of your product may not be terribly exciting; and the business goals may be unmeasurable. But that’s OK—as long as you are able to recognise that you made a mistake and you are willing to learn from it.
Therefore, don’t let mistakes discourage you. See failure as a necessary part of the learning journey rather than something bad that should be avoided. Be patient, don’t put yourself under pressure, don’t try to force success, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t succeed. I can be very self-critical when I learn a new skill, for instance. I can have thoughts like “I am no good at this” and “I’ll never get it” when I make a mistake and struggle. While it’s normal to have doubts, acting on those thoughts would be giving in to a fixed mindset. Instead, practice self-compassion, reflect on your learning approach, and have faith in your ability to develop and grow. With the right effort you will get better. It might just take a little while.
Cultivate an Open Mind
Believing in our ability to learn and grow sounds like common sense. So why don’t we always show a growth mindset? An important reason is our attachment to what we know and who we think we are.
If we are aware of it or not, we tend to be fond of the knowledge and skills that we have acquired; and the more we know, the more expertise we have on a given subject, the more attached and less open to new insights and change we usually are. If you’ve successfully done strategy work for your product across different life cycle stages, for example, then you are likely to be convinced that your approach, your way of working is right. If a colleague uses new or different techniques, then it is easy to dismiss them. You know what works best for your product after all. But do you?
To take full advantage of a growth mindset, cultivate an open mind. To do so, hold your knowledge, views, and beliefs lightly and don’t take them too seriously. Realise that learning something new often requires letting go of existing ideas, knowledge, and behaviour. What’s more, views are relative, and there is no one right way. People have different preferences and needs, and different circumstances call for different approaches. What works well for your product may not be the best approach for another offering or a different context. Don’t let your knowledge, skills, or beliefs define who you are. Otherwise they will hold you back, and you won’t be able to fulfil your true potential.
Developing an open mind provides you with an inner agility. It makes it easier to leverage mistakes and learn from difficult feedback, as you are less concerned with being right; it counteracts mental biases like the tendency to look for data that confirms your views (confirmation bias); and it facilitates collaboration: With an open mind, you will be more appreciative of other people’s ideas and perspectives.
Foster Your Learning Capacity
A great way to cultivate a growth mindset and open mind is to learn a new skill, for example, learning to draw or paint, sing, play an instrument, take up yoga, or another form of exercise. For example, I have benefitted a lot from (re-) learning to play the saxophone—after not having played it for more than 20 years. This has taught me not only about playing a wind instrument and music in general, but more importantly, about myself including how driven and impatient I can be. It has helped me see how valuable failure is in order to progress: It’s impossible to get better at playing an instrument without challenging yourself and making mistakes. But I have also learnt to be patient and not wanting to achieve too much too quickly. Otherwise I will frustrate myself and slow down the learning process.
Another way to avoid a fixed mindset is to collaborate with others. For instance, invite a colleague to one of your roadmapping workshops or sprint review meetings, or prioritise the product backlog together. This will challenge some of your views and beliefs, help you reflect on your own practice, and offer the opportunity to pick up new approaches and techniques. It is also a great opportunity to learn something about yourself. Are you, for example, critical of the other person’s work and quick to exercise judgement? Are you pleased for the individual or envious when a colleague is better at something?
Finally, try to make regular reflection part of your work, and cultivate mindfulness. This will allow you see more clearly what you hold dearly and what you are attached to. It will help you better understand your defaults, tendencies, and preferences. This is the first step for developing your product management practice and yourself.