Three question for Product Manager Teresa Torres

We start the Q & A series of 2015 with Teresa Torres of ProductTalk fame. As usual – just three Teresa-Torresquestions and unedited answers!

Product Mantra: Gut feeling and data-driven approach – when do you prefer one over the other?

Teresa: I don’t prefer one over the other. Both are important and need to play a role in decision-making. Gut feelings or intuition is usually the result of pattern matching based on our prior experience. We notice something in a current situation that reminds us of past experience and we generate a solution based on what worked in our past. Whether or not this is a good solution depends on whether the current situation is similar to our past experience in relevant ways.

The challenge is our past experience might be similar in superficial ways and different in significant ways, meaning that a solution that worked in a past experience may be irrelevant to our current situation. We aren’t very good at recognizing when this occurs. Our intuition finds a solution quickly and we aren’t very good at slowing down and asking in which ways is this situation similar and different.

This is where a data-driven approach can help. We should listen to our intuition, but we shouldn’t trust it blindly. Instead, we should design experiments to test whether or not our proposed solution works in the current situation.

The optimal form of decision making is to listen to our intuition to generate insights and then to use a data-driven approach to test those insights.

Product Mantra: Intuition is very important for a good Product Manager. How do you develop intuition?

Teresa: Intuition comes from experience and reflection. Both are critical. We all know people who have years of experience who stopped improving long ago. And similarly, we all know people who seem experienced beyond their years. The difference is often reflection.

It’s not enough to log 10,000 hours of practice. In fact, the research that suggests it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop expertise probably doesn’t apply to fields like product management. With the type of complex business problems that we tend to face, it’s hard to get expert coaching and it’s even harder to get real-time feedback, both of which are necessary for the deliberate practice required by the so-called “10,000 hour rule.”

You can’t just log experience. You have to take the time to reflect on your experience. This means you need to grow your awareness around how you make decisions and when you tend to be wrong. For product managers, I recommend doing the following for each new product idea:

  • Write down what impact you expect the product change to have.
  • Estimate an exact amount with a rationale for why.
  • Design an experiment to test your thinking.
  • Track your results.
  • Compare the actual outcomes to your estimated outcomes.
  • Do the work to understand the gap between the actual outcomes and your expected outcomes.

If you do this over and over gain, your intuition will improve. But remember, a finely tuned intuition doesn’t mean you can ever stop experimenting (as you won’t know when you are wrong), it just means your cycles will get shorter – you’ll know what to test sooner, your tests will get better, and you’ll start to move more quickly.

We need to let go of the idea that as product managers we can be right more often than not. Instead, we need to assume we’ll be wrong and adjust our methods to account for this.

I suspect the real question behind this question is how to we get better at product management. Product management is a broad function and it’s impossible to build expertise in every aspect of it. I recommend getting good at the basic fundamentals which I define as empathy, active listening, curiosity, intellectual honesty, statistical competence, root-cause analysis, visual communication, and abductive reasoning; cultivating the right mindsets such as being human-centered, experimental, collaborative, and metacognitive; and picking one or two areas of depth to develop deep expertise. You can read more about my philosophy on developing product expertise here.

ProductMantra: What was your New Year resolution for 2014 as a Product Manager? Based on that how do you frame one for 2015.

Teresa: I don’t set New Year resolutions. Too much research suggests that they don’t work. Instead, I set learning goals.

In 2013, I wanted to learn about content marketing and get better at cohort analytics. That year I worked at AfterCollege  I built out a content marketing team that is building awareness and growing the student audience and I implemented cohort analytics that accelerated our rate of learning and allowed us to get traction with a new product much faster than we otherwise would have been able to do.

In 2014, I worked as a full-time consultant coaching product teams on how to integrate user research, experimentation, and meaningful metrics into the product development process to help them make better product decisions. My goal for the year was to invest 100% of my effort into making this a viable business and this led to a variety of learning goals around how to support a growing consulting business. I also invested heavily in growing my statistical knowledge so that I was better equipped to coach my clients on understanding their experiment results.

Heading into 2015, my consulting business is strong and I’m less concerned about growing my business and I’m shifting my focus to my bigger goal of how do we invest in product management as a function – how do we get better at building products. As a consultant, I get access to the way different companies build products. I can see what’s working and what’s not across several companies. This year I plan to focus my energy into translating those insights into more writing and more teaching.

I also want to get better at the skills that underlie both of those. I’m approaching writing as a craft and investing in my skills by reading and writing more. With teaching, I’m investing in teaching opportunities that extend beyond what I do in my blog or a one hour talk. I’m doing more workshops and I’m experimenting with new course formats. I want to help more people get better at building products, so this year I’m experimenting with how to reach more people in ways that allow them to practice the craft of product management.

ProductMantra: Thanks a lot Teresa.

Teresa is a product coach helping teams adopt user-focused, hypothesis driven product development practices. You can read her views here and follow her tweets here.

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