Go on, guess what I meant.
You might think it’s all about understanding customers. Good guess, but that’s not what I am talking about.
Inspire their team? Sure some Product Managers do that, but not all of them and not always very well.
Influence others? Nope, not that either.
Manage stakeholders? Not a bad guess, but I have seen enough product managers who are awesome, but do a poor job of managing stakeholders.
So what is it?
It’s asking the question just right for the problem they are solving.
You have probably seen this in action. The awesome product manager asking just the right questions in a meeting. Amazing us with their thinking, without having to come up with the answer on their own.
Think of questions like glass. And think of your thinking like light. You can use the questions as a mirror; to reflect thinking in another direction. You can use it as a magnifying glass; and increase the importance of an issue. You can use them as a prism, drawing out the various aspects of an issue just like a prism draws out the rainbow from white light.
In order for you to draw out the best from your team, you have to use questions well. Questions help you act as a force multiplier for your team. In order to act as a force multiplier, you have to direct your team’s thinking and action in the right direction. But you can’t just tell them you have to do. You have to engage them. And use collective intelligence to come up with the right answer. That’s where questions come in.
How I Realized the Importance of this Skill?
Have you ever taken a project to completion, only to recognize a fatal error that you could have fixed easily in the beginning?
Have you ever felt excited about a brand new idea, only to discover that you had left most of the potential untapped?
And have you ever felt unmotivated, even if everything seemed to be going really well for you?
I have done all of these. Several times. And I used to be puzzled by “Why don’t I learn from my mistakes? Why don’t I fix things immediately?”
After a lot of soul searching, reading, and reflection, I realized that I had developed a set of questions I was subconsciously using to direct my life. And over time, I had not bothered to refine it to reflect on the lessons I had learned from my life experiences.
So I was learning new skills, but these skills were not showing up regularly in the situations I was going through.
All of us have a set of questions that we go to when we evaluate any action. We have the power to shape the list of questions, and literally change our lives.
And as product managers, this list extends from how we think of ourselves, to our team, to our product, our customers, and to the markets we serve.
Here is my go to list for product managers. It is imperative that you build your own list with these and other lists of questions, and refer to them in the right situation.
Four Situations That You Need to Prepare For
There are four common situations that you need to prepare for that I cover in this post:
- Making a decision
- Managing yourself
- Influencing and leading others
- Product planning
(Influenced by A book of Beautiful Questions)
1. Making a Decision
People say that the #1 job of Product Managers is to make sure that the team is working on the most impactful product improvements at all times. And it all comes down to good decision making. There are a lot of frameworks that can help inform prioritization, but prioritization is ultimately a decision you need to make. You have to apply your judgement. Here are a few questions that help you make good decisions by directing your judgement.
What type of decision is this?
A lot has been written on type I versus type II decisions, and a lot of it credited to Jeff Bezos. It remains a useful tool to think through decisions.
If you are new to this concept, here’s a short primer. Type 1 decisions are not easily reversible, and require thought and consideration. Type 2 decisions are easily reversible.
Type 1 decisions should be made considering as much data as possible, and exploring all avenues. They still require someone to make it, but it’s important that relevant people have had the chance to weigh in.
Type 2 decisions must be made fast. As one of my favorite articles states “Deciding on when a decision will be made from the start is a profound, powerful change that will speed everything up.”
One of the common mistake I have seen product managers make is spend way too much time on decisions that are easily reversible. Getting the right screen layout, picking which iteration to build first, or how to sequence tasks. One of the most powerful things you can say to your team is “let’s make a decision today.” Either we will get to consensus, or I will make a decision for us. Either way, we will move forward.”
What’s my day one hypothesis?
I spent two years at McKinsey, and one of the things that I learned really well was the importance of having a day one hypothesis . Based on what you know right now, what would your answer be?
Knowing and being explicit about your day one answer enables you to recognize what you are inclined to believe on an issue. And it is much easier to problem solve if you have at least one possible solution in mind
So go on. When you start something new, state your day one answer and use that to iterate fast to get to the right answer. But also remember, to not get too anchored on the day one answer, refer to the next question before you move forward.
What data would make me change my mind?
We tend to get anchored easily. So you have to always think about what’s not already being considered. What is the data and the underlying assumptions that your data is based on.
This question counteracts the day one answer question. Thinking about what it would take to get you to change your mind. This opens you up to possibilities. It also reminds you to search for disconfirming data.
2. Managing Yourself
To become a good product manager, you must become good at managing yourself. These questions help me manage my psyche better.
Am I bringing my best self to this situation?
Above everything, this is the core question I try to keep in mind. It is the #1 question I ask when I evaluate how my day went.
There are various aspects of this core question also worth considering.
- Am I really, truly giving this my best effort?
- Am I showing up with the right attitude?
- Am I doing the right amount of preparation?
- Am I willing to change and grow to adapt to this situation?
If you want to manage yourself better, you have to be willing to believe that you can alter yourself, and you can adapt to situations more so than you ever thought possible. You can work faster. You can be more patient. You can create energy. You can persuade when the time is right. You can start a movement. All of it boils down to bringing your best self to every situation
How do I change my environment to change my behavior?
Not all change needs to be done via willpower. Sometimes changing your environment is all you need to be able to act better, and to manage yourself better.
When I wanted to meditate more, I tied it to my morning coffee. I would make coffee. And while it cooled, I would meditate. A technique called habit stacking.
When I wanted to do more yoga, I rolled out the mat and left it in the middle of my living room. I would see it often enough to start doing more yoga.
When I wanted to get in a creative mood for this blog post, I moved to different floor of my office where I can look out at the Boston skyline. Or get this view.
When I started teaching about product management, I put a desk in my basement exclusively reserved for that work. I was only allowed to work on the Intentional Product Manager there.
When I wanted my team to generate more ideas, I shaped the meeting structure and gave them stickies and some time to brainstorming on their own.
We are so influenced by our environment, but we often overlook that we can change our environment to change our behavior.
Before you start on any major change effort, ask: what can you change in your environment that will influence you to drive that change
What is the primary question in my life right now?
This is one of Tony Robbins’s classic questions. We all have one major question — often negative — that drives how we behave. It drives our fears, our insecurities, our weaknesses.
Mine is often, “am I good enough.”
It is not important how it got to be that way. But knowing that I tend to ask this question helps me a lot. I know this question is at the core of when I back down and don’t push ideas hard enough. When I don’t influence others enough. When I don’t approach a situation with confidence.
But I also know that when I step into the situation and bring my best self to it, I can change the question. I can go above and beyond what I expected and overdeliver.
What am I excited about in my life right now?
“Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is precisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all.” — Tim Ferris
So what excites you? What is that you are doing that engages you, that makes you forget or skip meals, that you can keep doing without being paid for?
This is my favorite energy booster. More so than coffee. Asking myself this question and writing at least ten things on paper.
3. Influencing and Leading Others
How can I be a role model to others?
The fastest way to lose respect is to not consistently demonstrate what you preach. I have had bosses who preached focus, but never seemed to focus themselves. I have had acquaintances who preached generosity but were extremely stingy with their time and money.
What’s the quickest way to influence people? Show them how to act by doing so yourself.
Want your team to move faster? Make fast decisions.
Want your teammates to become more open to new ideas? Begin by becoming more open yourself.
Realizing that you can and will have influence on others by your actions means a lot. Sometimes we don’t do that. We think of role models as those ultra successful people, and that we have a long way to go before we will become a role model.
You are a role model now. Ask yourself how you should act so that others learn the right things from your behavior.
How do I want this person to benefit from other people they care about?
We are willing to do more for others than we would do for ourselves. — Brendon Burchard
Brendon Burchard calls this “Benefit Extension.”
To influence your teammate, you can appeal to personal benefits. But a bigger draw is likely what it means for others, is ultimately what this person cares about. It might be customers. It might be other people on the team.
People are willing to put themselves through pain if it benefits someone they really care about.
So figure that out, and you have more influence than you ever thought possible.
4. Product Vision and Strategy
Is there a way I can multiply the impact by ten?
So many times, we think small. We default to customer requests, small improvements that solves immediate pain points. But we miss the boat on the big impact.
Ken Norton calls it Product Managers by Orders of Magnitude.
Google calls it 10X thinking
This question forces you to consider is there a way you can solve customer problems in a much more impactful manner, forcing you to question assumptions and reframe your thinking.
It’s hard to do this. We are inclined to prioritize immediate gains over long term benefits, even if the long term benefits might be so much better. So it takes real thought, and understanding of what’s going on in the world outside the four walls of your office to be able to think this way.
But you must do this. It is your duty as a Product Manager.
What would I do if I could not fail?
This is another question that enables you to think beyond where your mind would go. If risks were not a concern, you would probably choose to do something more ambitious. Figure out what that something is, and considering doing it now.
If this product failed, what would be the most likely reasons it did?
Product Managers must consider themselves as risk managers.
Think about it this way. Engineers spend so much time worrying about technical risks. They do unit tests, integration tests, scalability tests, smoke tests, and sometimes they test their own tests.
Designers obsess about usability risks.
What should you obsess about? ALL the other risks. Market demand risks, business model risks, competitive risks.
Essentially, you are responsible for anything that might kill your product or make this feature or project fail.
A good way of answering this question is to do this pre-mortem. Conduct a brainstorming session where you assume that your product launched and completely flopped. Have the team write ideas down on why it happened. Then do some affinity mapping and figure out how they rank on “likelihood of happening” and “how much could they harm the product.”
Then prioritize and tackle these risks accordingly.
What’s the one thing you can do, that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
This is the ultimate Product Management question, from the book “the ONE thing”. David Cancel even has a newsletter by this name. What is the most important thing to do? How many times we assume we have to do everything. Build all the features. Fix all the bugs. Attend all the retros.
But we sometimes miss the boat on the one thing that matters above all.
Finding the right questions and asking them at the right time can dramatically change your life. It can alter your product management career trajectory. But most importantly, it can magnify the effectiveness of your team and your product.
But you must create your own list. Questions have an emotional tug that your heart can feel.
To make it easier to get started, I am making available my list of 30 favorite questions for every Product Management situation as a starting point.