Scales for Product Managers

After reading Dave Perrel’s post on learning like an athlete, then seeing that Tyler Cowen had also been thinking about it (and giving his own take on it!), I was inspired to think about this in the context of product management.

Tyler’s favourite question around this is: “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” This strikes me as a nice version of asking how people approach deliberate practice in their career – the metaphor of a pianist’s scales is helpful for grokking an abstract idea like this.

Like most knowledge work jobs, product management isn’t a profession that has success metrics nearly as clear as sports. This makes it more challenging to find a smart practice regimen, but far from impossible.

Before we can figure that out, though, we need to zoom out a little: what does success look like for a product manager?

A successful product manager:

  • Is respected and trusted by people in all parts of the organisation
  • Knows how users are using her product, and what the current top opportunities for improvement are
  • Has a constantly-changing list of hypotheses about the product to test
  • Is responsible for a product that is constantly improving (yes, we have a recursion problem here, but we can’t go through every layer of turtle in this post – define this as you wish!)

OK then – as a product manager, what routines should I have to ensure that I will constantly grow closer to the Platonic ideal PM I’ve described above? Basic routines, automatic routines, routines that provide the foundation for doing more complex, high-value work – work like scales for a pianist.

  • Check the key metrics for the product – those 1-3 numbers that tell you if things are improving, stagnating, or going to hell
  • Talk to actual users, and watch them using the product
  • Write down a question about the product or the users. Ideally, find the answer immediately, but at least record the question
  • Check the status of what your team is currently working on, and review what is coming next
  • Use the product or a competitor’s product, to stay completely in touch
  • Reach out to someone outside your team to communicate something interesting, ask them a question, or just say hi

There are certainly more you could add to this list, depending on your exact expertise and organisation, but I would be comfortable prescribing the items above to all PMs.

Now go forth and practice your scales, my Product sistren and brethren!