4 Iterative Practices for Navigating Product Management and Life

I want to invite fellow product managers into a conversation. I’m sometimes asked to share about my process and usually people seem most interested in my day-to-day tactical activities. As happy as I am to share these, they’re part of a larger framework that I think gets talked about too little.

I believe Product Management is best in a holistic framework, and like many things worth doing it requires us at our best. Even for those of us who have been doing this a long time, it’s continually a work in progress.

I was recently asked to share my approach to four aspects of product management—product enhancement, pricing, customer acquisition, and new product development (NPD)—which I’ll do via scenarios at the end of this introduction to my approach.

First of all—similar to sports or other forms of competition—preparing for peak performance is critical. It’s not just about showing up—getting to the office or logging in for work—it’s about being in the right frame of mind.

We need to be ready to actively pursue learning, encounter challenges and failures, pivot, focus, switch contexts, connect dots, refocus, collaborate, and make decisions that impact the team and the product—and ultimately the people who count on our products being the right solutions for them.

Being “ready” for action may look very different for you, but it’s important to consider how we cultivate a habit of readiness. Product Management is full of unknowns, trade-offs, pivots, and failures. Those most successful in the role learn to navigate this complexity collaboratively and handle failure by learning and getting up again to make the next play. In my experience, it most resembles the sport of rugby, but more on that another time. 🏉

What does this look like for me? This morning, as on most mornings, this involves prayer, a workout (usually a run), some reading, a good breakfast, and very strong coffee (preferably espresso). When possible I start up a playlist of music I’ve put together to help me achieve a good flow state and clear away any distractions I might have left open from the day before. I want to be free to engage with today’s challenges even if I’m continuing work from yesterday.

Eric Davis talks about cultivating awareness, flow, mastery, tribe, and autonomy through repetitive learning and practice. Our decisions and behaviors are part of a system or process that can be broken down and adjusted with intentionality.

Essentially, we have the capacity to design the way we engage with life or important aspects of life, like our product management careers. We do that by identifying the parts of a system, assessing their impact and performance, prioritizing our resources, and executing our intention.

Similar to the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (O.O.D.A) loop common in leadership circles and popularized by Stan McChrystal in Team of Teams, I’ve found Eric Davis’s high level iterative process I.A.P.E. to be highly effective in product management and design:

  1. Identify
  2. Assess
  3. Prioritize
  4. Execute

This iterative loop can be applied at multiple levels from discovery activities, product roadmaps and feature requirements, product operations and team process, etc. The simplicity and repetitive nature of these practices means that you can become an expert at learning, not just in specific aspects of a product context. Let’s look at this through a product lens.

IDENTIFY includes recognizing the problems or opportunities that exist for the product. It includes scouting or reconnaissance that requires the product manager to be well ahead of the front-lines to anticipate where the market is headed, how the competition is moving, and what customers/users might need that they don’t even realize yet. The goal here is to understand the problem or opportunity well enough to act on it before others do.

ASSESS the opportunity to ask how might we… types of questions. This naturally leads to ideation and prototyping where we generate ideas and prepare to quickly test them with users/customers to learn if they’re on track.

PRIORITIZATION actively positions the initiative or idea for action. It’s a key function of the product management role. Once an opportunity is identified and assessed well enough to have a good sense of scope, level of effort (LOE), and estimated cost compared with anticipated impact, we’re in a good position to when to go after it compared with other opportunities we might be considering.

EXECUTE is putting the prioritized work into action. It’s about collaboration with a diverse team to design, build, and deliver the product or feature. Product Managers must lead through influence rather than authority, and helping to build collaborative environments of trust makes sustained high performance possible. This is my favorite part of product management, and for me the most energizing and rewarding.

This framework is a loop that works best in short, iterative cycles. Over time it becomes internalized. I’ve experimented with using this same framework in other contexts like habit formation, life goals, and decision-making. It’s also brilliant for helping us navigate ambiguity.

The following product management scenarios pick up this basic framework. Please read on and engage with comments.

Navigating complexity. 🏉 Poet collaborating for a bold beautiful creative future via leadership, design thinking, UX, and Product Management at G2 ⚡️

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