Product Managers, I Dare You To Dream!

At its core strategy should be straightforward and uncomplicated, yet product managers talk about it like it’s some amorphous, elusive thing.  So often, product managers will ask for help to improve their product strategy as if they were asking a tennis instructor to help them with their backhand.

To add a little fuel to the fire, the other question that seems to come up often is “how to I prioritize?”

Sometimes I need to take a breather and think about the voice of our market.   In this case, the voice suggests that product managers may not fully understand why strategy is so important.  I’m not sure why this is so, but I have a theory that’s rooted in philosophy. In trying to get to the core of what makes humans tick, many of the great western philosophers of yesteryear wrote about the power of desire.

Hume, Kant, Descartes, Hegel, and Freud all saw desire as a major motivation for behavior.

The British philosopher G.E. Moore provided us with the following example: “When I desire my glass of port wine, I have also an idea of the pleasure I expect from it… If the desire is to take a definite direction, it is absolutely necessary that the idea of the object, from which the pleasure is expected, should also be present and should control my activity.”

Desires propel us to action. Desires give us purpose. Conversely, lack of purpose can make us rudderless and stagnant. When we don’t know what we want, we flounder. We don’t want product managers to flounder, because the consequence for the business is unacceptable.

When I encounter a product manager who says he feels unsure about strategy, I always ask him what he desires – or, in other words, what does he envision for the future of his product.  [As an aside, people have been known me to ask:  “what do you want to have happen?” when they’re frustrated.]   Sometimes, I get the blank stare as he wrestles his mind for the right words.  Then, I take a slightly harder line.  I’ll ask:  What do you want out of your product? What do you want out of your company? What do you want out of your career? After some prodding he will eventually tell me that he desires success, as if hundreds of years of business thought leadership hadn’t conditioned him to come up with more specific goals.

Perhaps I’m being hard or unfair.  If a business person wants to take a leadership role, the “what they want” ought to roll off the tip of their tongue.

In past posts I have touched on the risk-averse nature of corporate America, where anxiety and insecurity are fueling management decisions. Everyone is terrified of looking bad. No one wants to risk being wrong, so everyone is overly cautious. Bosses keep initiatives vague to avoid setting themselves up for failure.

Some managers are so accustomed to being cogs in wheels, they relegate independent thinking to someone else – or – strategy is someone else’s problem.  Some managers, including product managers have ‘put their heads down’ to keep their jobs and make their bosses happy, they have forgotten how to dream.

The status quo needs a makeover. If nothing changes, “strategy” will continue to be a bee in the collective bonnet of the product management community.

Be the change. Dare to dream.

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