Curiosity and Failing Efficiently in Product Management

Product Top Tips, my weekly content feature on LinkedIn, last month tended to focus on Product Specialist’s attitudes towards making mistakes and overall fear of failure. Striving for nothing less than perfection can delay delivery times and result in a mediocre product because of a lack of product development in response to constructive feedback. 

Based on the past four Product Top Tip Releases by Product leaders Thomas Kasemir (Chief Product Officer at Productsup), Yoav Yeger (Head of Product at Wunderflats), Pierre-Alain Guillou (Product Lead at Next Matter), and Stephen Ballot (Chief Product Officer at Hey Car), the following article explores the importance of being fearless in the face of failure and using every mistake as a learning and development opportunity.

To be a great Product Specialist, it’s fundamental to stay curious. It’s important to stay up to date and relevant, whilst also standing out from competitors, and to do this, Product specialists should have a genuine and proactive interest in the market, emerging trends, customer needs, and new technologies. Curiosity opens new doors and enables improvement and innovation, and this innate curiosity and desire to gain new knowledge and try new things is critical for success in product. 

Yoav Yeger advises: “Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo”, and I have to agree. Just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t mean that that is the best way to do something. A little curiosity and creativity might be all it takes to launch your product way ahead of your competitors. 

It’s a lot like the 5 monkey’s experiment, where 5 monkeys were placed in a cage with a ladder with bananas on the top rung. Every time a monkey tried to climb the ladder the experimenter sprayed all monkeys with ice cold water. After doing this repeatedly, the monkeys started to attack any single monkey who tried to climb the ladder until no monkey dared try. The ice water was removed as a deterrent. The experimenter then substituted one of the monkeys with a new monkey. Naturally, the new monkey tried to climb the ladder, but after several beatings from the other monkeys, stopped trying. The monkey accepted this as the social norm, without understanding why. 

One by one, each of the monkeys in the cage was substituted for a new monkey until none of the original group remained. The same thing happened repeatedly. By the end of the experiment, the 5 monkeys in the cage had learned to follow the rule (don’t go for the bananas), without any of them knowing the reason why and despite the punishment of ice water having been removed. 

The lesson here is that we tend to do things the way we’re told they’ve always been done without questioning or revisiting the reason behind it, even long after that reason ceases to exist. This is where curiosity is key to breaking the cycle. 

The key to breaking this cycle is through reading and analysing the data. Yoav Yeger urges Product specialists to really “dig into problems, experiment, understand your audience, and be a relentless data cruncher to gain meaningful insights.” Not everything you try will work, but that’s part of the process. Curiosity is key to continuously improving and developing your Product so that you are positioned in the market to always deliver a high-quality product that is relevant to your current audience.

Be Fearless in the Face of Failure: Embracing mistakes in Product Management 

Failure is a natural part of the process in an environment driven by curiosity, creativity, and customer-centricity, and Product Specialists must accept and embrace this if they are to work efficiently and delivery high quality products to the market. Simply put, Thomas Kasemir says “Be brave, take opportunities, act fast, fail fast, move on”. Whilst the “fail fast” approach has been condemned by some Product Managers for being too reckless, the epitome of what Thomas is saying is to be brave in stepping outside the box and being able to make decisions fast and move on swiftly if something doesn’t go to plan. 

This is fundamental in product, which is a space when user demand and needs might constantly change, and trends are constantly shifting. Being agile and willing to change course quickly is key. Thomas explains “If something doesn’t work, dump it fast. If something works, grow and improve it”, which is a really simple yet effective attitude to have towards product development. It truly reflects the agility required and how quickly product moves forward.

Therefore, rather than adopting the “fail fast” mentality which has been rejected by some in Product space, I suggest ‘failing efficiently’. This involves accepting and embracing failures, learning from them, and quickly adapting your approach or route. It is only through failure and suitable adaptation that you can truly deliver the highest quality product to your audience which aligns with their changing requirements. 

Psychological Safety, Actioning Mistakes and Forgetting Pride

A Product that just stays on one course, will very rarely truly WOW its customers and users. It will merely produce a satisfactory product that meets the bare minimum requirements. On the other hand, Product teams that are willing to try new things, break the status quo, and make mistakes to learn from, will provide a high quality, user-centric product that meets and exceeds current expectations and needs. 

Stephen Ballot quoted Sophocles in his Product Top Tip, “All people make mistakes, but a good person yields when they know their course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” This aligns perfectly to an effective Product Team. As a team, and as individuals, a Product function should be comfortable admitting when an idea has failed and should be swift in changing course to make amends. For this to work effectively, the Product Leader has an important part to play.

In order to create a team that is comfortable with failure and taking accountability for mistakes, the Product Lead or Manager needs to create a space of psychological safety and a culture of trust. This will ensure that all members of the Product Team are happy to admit when something is not working, will be confident in suggesting new ideas, and won’t feel scared to take responsibility for something that has gone wrong without fear of punishment or humiliation. By empowering teams in this way, a leader will get the most out of their team members. As Pierre-Alain Guillou explains, “Engineers who are product-minded and involved in what they are building are the greatest asset to your company.”

This culture enables true progress and development and encourages everybody to be an active part of that journey. There is no blame and no egos, only accountability, collaboration, and teamwork. Whilst Product Teams should take pride in their work, this pride shouldn’t manifest itself in a way that is disruptive to overall Product progress. 

Be a Great Product Manager: Stay Curious, Stay Fearless, Stay Agile

Nobody ever developed a great product by playing safe. Creating great products requires creativity, fearless failure, and agility. Product teams should be invested in constantly finding out as much as possible and continuously learning about their target audience and market, and be unafraid to try new things, change and abandon ideas as necessary, and take accountability for mistakes and learn from them. 

Mistakes and effective action are part of the product journey and will ensure that the final product is aligned with user needs, expectations, and demands. Without risk there is no reward. The key takeaways for me, from April’s Product Top Tips are: 

  • Embrace failure and don’t be afraid of making mistakes, as long as you make the necessary changes and amendments. All mistakes are a learning opportunity!
  • Don’t stagnate! Try new things and think outside the box. Creativity is critical.
  • Empower your team to be a real part of development. Invested team members are the biggest asset to the company but require a culture of trust to truly flourish.
  • Constant learning is key. You should always be learning about what your customers want and need and what the latest trends are. Relying on real-time data will ensure your product is always relevant!
  • Be willing to abandon ideas that aren’t working quickly and move on to the next idea. To be effective you need to be agile and be able to change direction as a team quickly.

Stay tuned for more Product Top Tips this May or get in touch to feature in future releases! We’ve had some great feedback on the series so far from contributors and viewers. It’s a great opportunity to build your personal brand whilst contributing to the wider global Product community. 

Partner with Maxwell Bond, 2021 Best Specialist Tech Recruitment Agency, Manchester & Berlin

For UK Product Top Tips, please contact Riana Butler, or for Germany’s Product Top Tips series, drop me a message directly.

Alternatively, contact me for help finding your next Product role, or to discuss how you can hire top Product talent across the Berlin area.