5 alternate books to read in 2020 for Product Managers

Originally published on Medium on Dec 20, 2019 

Everyone has a list of books they want to read. Most of you will fuel that list with recommendations for Product Managers, scattered throughout the interwebs. And those are typical to your role, your challenges. However, sometimes, inspiration can be found in the most random places — inspiring yourself from works outside of your field. New ideas won’t just pop into your head during meetings — you have to seek them out. And yet, taking the time to read, more often than not, gets pushed to the bottom of the list. With the stress of deadlines and constant context switches, actually sitting down to do “nothing but reading” takes some special effort.

We’ll take a look at 5 books that provide an alternate view — with focus on the paradigm and what you gain from it. As product managers, lateral thinking and empathy are key skills we must master and reading through these books, you will be forced to re-think the way you’ve seen the world so far.

1. Extreme Ownership

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As product managers, we have all the accountability of the product, but no direct responsibility of the team who’s delivering the product. Ownership drives the success of our products. And who better to talk about ownership than the Navy Seals themselves? This book captures how the teams are motivated, aligned to a singular goal and always watching out for each other.

Key lessons I’ve derived from this:

  1. Leadership is accepting ownership of everything. Success is a shared victory, failure is your loss. This doesn’t mean you do everything — you do everything you can to help the responsible team member and stay on them till they complete it.
  2. When it comes to standards, it’s not what you preach or how well you preach, that makes a difference. It is what you tolerate. If you tolerate poor performance that becomes the new standard.
  3. You won’t do something you don’t believe in. Then, why should your team? It is imperative that the why is explained and clearly understood before you begin.

There are many more such lessons. The Navy Seals have been here long before Agile methodologies came into picture. In fact, some of Agile practices are inspired by military command. It helps to know from the source 🙂

2. Hit Refresh

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Hit Refresh is the real life story of Satya Nadella and the pillars that he stood on to transform Microsoft from a failing giant to the most valued company in the world. The transformation started with Satya learning to empathize.

For a Microsoft fan (me), this was a heartwarming read. It re-ignited my passion towards Microsoft and their products, made me realize that humble empathic leaders do exist.

Keeping aside my fan-boy love for the company and the man, here are some key insights I found from the book:

1. Learning Empathy
You can learn empathy from the smallest of events. By merely observing how people are using everyday tools or products, a lot can be learned — their expectations, their behaviour — all comes to light through plain observation.

2. Humility
Satya came off a grand victory within MS. He knew the people, the problems. And instead of immediately making changes , he waited and slowly brought about the ideas he wanted implemented. Never did he (nor does he) credit himself for the improvements. It was a silent revolution, all orchestrated by a single mind, with a grand vision.

3. The power of vision
Microsoft of the 2000’s was fighting within. They didn’t have a single goal they worked towards. Getting the entire organization aligned to a single vision, with a top-down approach — which frankly, is one of a kind so far — that transformed the way people thought about their departments and teams, is a victory Product Managers need to imbibe in their daily life.

Think of how much more you can get from your team if you can align them to the vision and get them to believe. You have to believe first. But the possibilities are endless!

3. Factfulness

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Hans Rosling is a visual story-teller. Ever since I saw his Ted Talk, I’ve been gobbling down ever piece of literature and talk he’s ever laid out. That man is a genius!

This book lays down the foundation of why your thinking about the world is wrong — excess information has trained your mind to see the dark side of the world, when the reality is actually opposite! Factfulness explores our biases and trains us against taking things for their face value.

For a product manager, this book is helps with the following:

  1. Mental Models
    Too often, we’re victims of our own biases — we tend to blindly believe that what we know is right, based on experience. This book breaks those for you. As you read through the book, think — if I could err when it comes to global understanding, what else am I assuming that I cannot back with data?
  2. Unbiased Data Scrutiny
    We’re also victims of drama — a sensational data point, that favors our decision, is swallowed without a thought and put in front of unsuspecting stakeholders. However, scrutinizing data without any bias takes a lot of practice. This book helps you get started.

4. Superforecasting

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Where do I even begin with this book? Product managers often face the onus of forecasting their features success along a KPI matrix. After all, we’ve to stake a claim that ‘KPI X will grow by Y % within time T after feature Z is launched’. For all you know, you’ve made those predictions and probably never looked back at them when you predict for the next feature. Have you considered the accuracy of your predictions?

This book lays the foundation of analytical thinking for forecasting. It establishes that forecasting isn’t just the domain of super smart data nerds, but a common man’s domain — it all depends on the data you look at and how often you are willing to correct yourself.

Even though it starts a bit slow — providing solid examples until Chapter 3, without really coming to a point — it picks up a logical pace and establishes the following lessons:

  1. Focusing on right data points
    As you come up the experience ladder, you’re exposed to more and more information. Sometimes, this funnels you into thinking only along those data points — attempting forecasts based on those guides. However, there are so many other data points that will actually help you predict better.
  2. Learning from mistakes actually makes you better
    We’ve known this lesson for a while now, but it helps to get the lesson from various other fields. When you admit to your mistakes, you are in a comfortable position to improve on your errors.
  3. Forecasting method
    These actions that are helpful in forecasting:
  • Break the question down into smaller components.
  • Identify the known and the unknown.
  • Look closely at all of your assumptions.
  • Consider the outside view, and frame the problem not as a unique thing but as a variant in a wider class of phenomena.
  • Then, look at what it is that makes it unique; look at how your opinions on it are the same or different from other people’s viewpoints.
  • Taking in all this information with your dragonfly eyes, construct a unified vision of it; describe your judgement about it as clearly and concisely as you can, being as granular as you can be.

I leave you with an excerpt from the book:

The difference between these groups was in their thinking. One group organized their thoughts around Big Ideas. Whether environmentalists, free-market fundamentalists, socialists, etc., these idealists fit the information they had into existing frameworks. To make an argument, they tended to pile up reasons for why their analyses were correct. They were very confident in their own abilities, even when they were wrong. The other group of analysts used a variety of tools to gather information. They were concerned with possibilities and probabilities more than certainties, and they were able to admit their errors. These experts beat the other group on both calibration and resolution.

The Big Idea people tend to organize all their thinking around the Big Idea, which distorts their view of the world. They can gather all the information they want; it won’t make them more accurate because they’re organizing it to fit in with the Idea. These people may seem confident, which makes others more likely to believe them. (These people do well on TV, even if they aren’t such good prognosticators.)

5. The Dip

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What do you think is the sales difference between the Vanilla (most selling) and Chocolate (second best) icecream? How about Chocolate and Butter Pecan (third best)? Would you be surprised to know that Vanilla outsells Chocolate ~3.3x, but Chocolate outsells Butter Pecan by only .5x?

The Dip basically dictates that to be a market leader, beyond the dip (see graph), you need to persevere. If you’re not playing to be the best, then you might as well quit. The winner, as Al Pacino said, is the one who is willing to die to achieve victory. If you bring anything lesser, you’re going to lose.

The Dip helps you realize, both professionally and personally, which type of Dip are you riding:

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3 types of dips

Key lessons I learned from this:

  1. Focus on what’s important
    Do you want to be the best product person there is? If yes, what are you investing your time on? Are those activities in Cul-de-sac or Cliff dip? You should quit. Generic quitting is for losers. Strategic quitting is for winners. There is a big pot of gold beyond the Dip — you just need to know if the Dip is worth the ride.
  2. Regular introspection
    Successful product managers sometimes get a high off their own success. They think they have the Midas touch — things will turn to gold when they take it up. Because of this, they divest their time and energy in so many things that they rarely see success thereon. We’ve to reign ourselves in and understand what’s working for us and what’s not!
  3. Fight Complacency
    Are you a part of a big organization that has a steady revenue stream and no real need for innovation? Start ringing the bells. If competition hasn’t attempted to de-throne you, they will. Don’t let the comfort of the first place hold you down.

For young product managers, I strongly recommend reading books. Whether it is the standard product management list or the alternate set I’ve recommended above — reading expands your horizons. We’ve to think laterally, out-of-the-box. Our innate ability lies in merging two foreign concepts to form a problem-solving, revenue generating solution. We can only achieve this by gaining perspective.

Thank you.

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