38: Product managers learn by doing

I’m writing about one hundred things I’ve learned about being a product manager.

Many years ago, my parents bought me my first PC. It was fairly pricy at the time, and represented the end of my reliance on stolen minutes on other people’s computers. And because I’m a muppet, the very first thing I did was to brick it by attempting an ill-advised upgrade.

I spent the whole night in a cold sweat figuring out how to unf**k it before my folks found out in the morning. Once I’d got it working again, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson not to tinker further. Instead I found I was no longer afraid of experimenting further with it.

When we’re children, we have an overriding desire to learn by doing. It’s as if we have a biological imperative to seek the answer to the question “I wonder what would happen if I … ?” We won’t accept the voice of experience, even if it’s telling us not to touch the hot thing, eat garden worms or pull the cat’s tail. We have a go anyway and learn what happens for ourselves.

As we grow older, most of us lose that urge to have a go and damn the consequences. We gradually lose our appetite for risk, perhaps because we begin to remember our failures more keenly than our successes, or feel we have too much to lose.

Learning product management theory in a classroom is a risk-free scenario. You undertake the thought exercises in a safe environment and, because you’re not actually making changes to your product during the training, there are no untoward consequences. It’s all too easy to let the training wash over you. At the end of the course, you leave with the warm, fuzzy feeling of having learned something and the obligatory list of things you’re going to do differently tomorrow. The feeling soon passes, you bury the action list in a drawer, and fundamentally nothing changes.

However, some lessons can only be learned the hard way, when you have skin in the game and something to lose, and product management is no exception. These are the situations that feel like all the blood is draining from your body, or when your heart is racing from a lucky near-miss, or when bits of you are hurting because you zigged when you should have zagged. These are the lessons you’ll remember most keenly. And if things don’t go your way, figure out what went wrong, pick up the pieces (and occasionally your front teeth) and resolve to defy the outcome by doing things differently next time.  It may not be the most painless way to learn how to manage products, but it is vital you try, make mistakes, learn from them and repeat.

Product management is a discipline that thrives on curiosity – questions continually present themselves because there are so many unknowns. You can learn all the theory you like, but at some point you just have to stop thinking about what the answer might be and dive in to find out.

So rekindle your childhood urge to experiment. Take a risk and try something different or unexpected. You only truly learn by doing.

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