Kevin Stevens
Kevin Stevens
Product Principles - Part IV: Learning
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Product Principles - Part IV: Learning

Every May, with the exception of this one, graduation speakers tell millions of students to "follow their dreams". While well-intentioned, that implies dreams are static in a world that is increasingly dynamic.

We're taught from a very early age to set a target and work back from it. However, growth comes from working forward out of promising situations.

In the last part of Product Principles, our focus is on learning. The very best teams move quickly, and the direction in which they move is determined by what they learn.

These four principles will help you learn faster, learn together, and create more team chemistry in the process.

Growth = Bias(learning * action)

Amazon famously lists "bias for action" among its core values. But there is another core value that, when combined with this one, creates a flywheel - learn and be curious.

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Learn and Be Curious Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

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Bias for Action Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.

Source: Amazon

If you want to encourage active learning, you must create an environment that encourages it.

This does not happen naturally. Early-stage companies are by definition built to learn and iterate. Like Amazon, you should strive to keep this mindset even as your business grows into product-market fit and into scale.

As a result, learning and action become the force multipliers of a flywheel that never goes too far off course.

Get comfortable with uncertainty and being wrong 

Product management is a "catch-22" - you have deadlines that force you into uncertainty, but to be certain you'll always need more time.

Most companies reward employees for committing to a plan and then executing it. It's the same path the graduation speaker above recommends from the first time we step out into the real world.

So, we naturally give in to this "plan and implement" mindset and settle on solutions quickly to highlight our accountability and execution ability. We often do this at the expense of solving problems optimally.

But, deadlines are important, we can't solve only problems where we have 100% certainty. To innovate and create new value, you must experiment and if you know the result in advance, it's not an experiment.

So what can you do? You can accept it, and embrace it. We are attracted to leaders who show vulnerability.

A basic principle of life is that you cannot know everything. If you harness a beginner's mindset, you can move away from randomness and build products that have a better chance of success.

Evolve or die

Living organisms depend on evolution for long-term survival. Businesses are living organisms and must evolve to stay relevant.

evolution (n.) - the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.

To evolve, you must constantly scrutinize the most important features of your product. You will undoubtedly sink time and resources into product that either fails completely or fail over time.

Just as you would backlog groom before a sprint, you should periodically groom the existing product. Ask yourself what's working, what's not, what's hard to maintain, and what is creating barriers for new development?

Prioritization is an important part of product evolution. Each quarter, you'll create a document with high-level goals and the order in which you want to achieve them.

If you're like most product teams, you'll put that file in a folder not to be touched again until the next quarter. Instead, re-visit this document every sprint, even if it's only for a few minutes.

These few minutes will help you hone your assumption engine, and allow you to be intentional about your priorities.

With each passing sprint, your customers deliver more data. That data gives you an opportunity to improve. By building systematic processes, you can interpret new information regularly and evolve at a faster pace than your competition.

Know what you don’t know 

The best teams optimize for velocity. The best way to increase speed is to increase the rate at which you learn. The willingness to learn is dependent on your willingness to admit what you don't know.

You should know this, growing into a great product manager takes time. Like any skill, competence requires experience and reflection. You'll benefit more if you do the latter in public, and with input from your team.

Knowing what you don't know is ironically a great way to create buy-in from your team. If you make a habit of explaining your thought process and making decisions with probabilistic thinking, it becomes clear that you're in the learning process just like everyone else.

For example, instead of declaring "our customers want X", say "I'm 75% certain this feature would increase retention between 10-20%" while discussing the complexities that create those ambiguities.

This type of thinking will force you to consider more angles, and encourage conversation amongst your team. It also creates an environment where it is okay not to be 100% certain or correct - the type of environment that encourages risk and creativity.

You'll regularly face situations in product management where the answer is unclear. The important part is that you embrace this uncertainty and understand how to turn it into a strength.

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Product Principles - Part III: Communication is Key
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Product Principles - Part II: Execution
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Product Principles - Part I: Decision Making

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