Continuous improvement

If you want to be a bad product manager, stick with what has always worked for you and ignore advice. What has served you well in the past will likely serve you well in the future. You got to where you are for a reason, so why would you need to do something different? You don’t become a product manager without knowing what you’re doing, and anyone who says you need to improve obviously doesn’t understand your skills, experience, and expertise. When people give you feedback you can accept it if you really want, but you don’t need to go actively looking for ways to improve.

If you want to be a good product manager, seek out opportunities to get feedback. Actively look for ways to improve even when it requires you to do extra work. Not only can you always improve your skills and methods, but there is a difference between accepting feedback when it comes and seeking out feedback where you normally would not receive it.

K. Anders Ericsson, author of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, recently told Fast Company about “‘deliberate practice‘–an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance.” (Thanks to Victor for the pointer.) He provides an example:

Medical diagnosticians see a patient once or twice, make an assessment in an effort to solve a particularly difficult case, and then they move on. They may never see him or her again. I recently interviewed a highly successful diagnostician who works very differently. He spends a lot of his own time checking up on his patients, taking extensive notes on what he’s thinking at the time of diagnosis, and checking back to see how accurate he is. This extra step he created gives him a significant advantage compared with his peers. It lets him better understand how and when he’s improving. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that typically isn’t well known or widely practiced.

This is a great example of going above and beyond the call of duty (in this case quite literally) to improve one’s skills.

How can you as a product manager apply this to your work? Getting feedback from customers is obviously a great way to tell if your product strategy is working. At a more granular level, following up with individual stakeholders after specific interactions can help identify areas for improvement. Did that answer you sent to a salesperson who had a customer question help close the sale? Was your requirements document easily understood by the engineers? How could your presentation to company executives have addressed the corporate strategy more appropriately?

While some of this knowledge comes through experience, experience alone is not a substitute for active learning. After all, it is possible to do the same task over and over but still do it poorly. If no one has ever given you feedback on how well you are doing it and you have never made an effort to analyze your own ability to perform the task, how do you expect to improve?

Ericsson adds:

Just because you’ve been walking for 55 years doesn’t mean you’re getting better at it. It’s very hard for older engineers, for example, to stay competitive with young engineers trained with new and improved methods. Those who are successful have to put in a lot of extra time to learn about these new methods. You have to seek out situations where you get feedback. It’s a myth that you get better when you just do the things you enjoy.

Good product managers who want to continue to be good product managers — or become great product managers — would be well-served to seek out situations where they can get feedback and make sure they apply that feedback to their work.