One Skill That Every Great Product Manager Hones

It’s not empathy, prioritization, communication, technical or even research!
One Skill That Every Great Product Manager Hones 8

Throughout the years, I’ve coached and mentored various PMs. Often, their focus is on raw skills like writing better stories, or breaking down the problem statement. And I’ve consistently asked them, holistically, to look after a skill that is often left out of major product publications.

This skill takes a while to master. In fact, the best PMs I’ve met in my line of work demonstrate this innate ability, but again, as this is very innate, they fail to recognize that this is what made them awesome at their job.

Before I talk about the skill in question — let’s try to understand what is truly expected of a Product Manager.

Core Expectations from a Product Manager

Understanding Users

As a function, PMs roles are limited to answering the question “Why?”. They paint the picture of the primary problems faced by users of a product, and the team is the one that solves “How (to solve the problems)?”. While this may not be everyone’s direct experience — it is something we all aspire to reach.

Now, to answer such a question — one must be excellent at understanding all the signals that are sent by users — either through the data or through their actions. Subsequently, ‘Empathy’ falls very high in the needs of a product manager. The ability to understand our users, by building a persona of their selfs, and then applying various scenarios to predict their behaviors — is a skill often sought for by product managers.

But empathy is not the skill I’m talking about… sure, every article on Product management skillsets (including mine) talks about empathy. You see, empathy stems from mastering another ability.

Prioritization of tasks

This ability also hones another skill — prioritization. Prioritization is the ability to take a conscious decision on the order of execution of specific items in the backlog in a way that best suites the product. And by definition, it is acquired through experience. Does this mean a 40 yr old person will be able to prioritize better than a 25 yr old? Not if the 25 yr old does one thing better than the 40 yr old. If you’ve done enough prioritization, you’ll know that it comes down to listening for the right signals — the ability to filter noise from signal.

And while in a general case, a 40 yr old might have subconsciously developed the ability to identify signals, a 25 yr old might be better at it, if they’ve spent more time doing the one thing that helps them do better.

Thinking better

Good PMs can think about their actions and use that to improve their actions in the future. Great PMs can think about their thinking, improving their thinking.

What does it mean, to think about your thinking? It means, having a level of introspection that allows for observing yourself in a third person. It means knowing your motivations and context as a function of your action, and not just your actions.

Our actions stem from thought.

Thought is influenced by our environments (physical, mental, temporal — past & present).

You can truly understand your actions if you consider your environment.

In other simple words, you are treating yourself as a user and empathizing with yourself on the actions and outcomes.

Mental, isn’t it?

As ridiculous as it sounds, the only way you get better is by understanding what made things better for you, and how those things influenced your actions.

Incidentally, this entire mental jujitsu has a scientific name — metacognition.

Metacognition is the process of thinking about one’s own thinking and learning. It involves knowing when you know, knowing when you don’t know, and knowing what to do when you don’t know. In other words, it involves self-monitoring and correcting your learning processes. For example, you engage in metacognition if you notice that you are having more trouble learning concept A than concept B, or if you realize that your approach to solving a problem is not working, and you decide to try a different approach.

Metacognition also involves knowing yourself as a learner; that is, knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a learner. For example, if you can explain what your strengths are in academic writing, or exam taking, or other types of academic tasks, then you are metacognitively aware. Metacognitive processes can be applied to learning and thinking in all disciplines and contexts. It is an essential skill for life-long learning, and therefore, metacognitive skills need to be nurtured from day one in new PMs.

While it has impacts on learning, it also makes you better doing. Take, for example, empathy. You can be better at empathy if you’re able to identify when the solution proposed doesn’t solve the core user problems. But to accomplish that, you’ll need to learn how users behave — learning from the data, excluding the noise and seeking the signal.

How to get better at Metacognition?

Before we get into the details on getting better at Metacognition, I want you to think about this quote from Richard Pascale:

People are more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking, then think their way into a new way of acting”.
Richard Pascale

This quote is often put at the end of failed Agile articles — exemplifying how people are more likely to bring their old thinking into a new way of thinking, turning Agile projects into waterfall (SAFe, anyone?). The primary issue here is that most people are terrible at metacognition. That is, they do not know what they need to do to actually learn something — they’re more than happy to have ‘understood’ the key terms and apply it to their way of working.

Sad as it may be, it is what makes Product managers different — we can learn new things quickly and adopt it into our new paradigm. My ex-head of product used to say that innovative product management is essentially taking two unrelated ideas and marrying them to create a new one that can be implemented. To achieve that, one must be capable enough to understand the motivations behind each idea and apply the basic principles in the new idea that you’ve created.

The next section is a summary of [the fabulous article on improving your metacognition].

There are 8 simple ways to improve your metacognition abilities:

  1. Know What You Don’t Know
  2. Set yourself great goals
  3. Prepare Properly
  4. React better to the feedback you receive
  5. Monitor your performance
  6. Seek feedback
  7. Keep a diary
  8. Ask Yourself Good Questions

I’ll add that in the feedback sections, you have to be good at receiving feedback.

The last part about Asking Yourself Good Questions can become an exercise in futility, if not properly mentored. You’ll need to be very observant in the way your senior leadership (especially in Product) ask questions. This will help you mirror their abilities to an extent and eventually reach their levels.


I’ll leave you with this quote:

“I believe everybody is creative, and everybody is talented. I just don’t think that everybody is disciplined. I think that’s a rare commodity.”
Al Hirschfield

Metacognition isn’t as easy as it is made to sound. You’ve to extremely disciplined in your thinking to avoid pitfalls of excess metacognition(scroll to the section: “Metacognition as Unhelpful”). Remember, at the end of the day, you’re trying to predict your intuition. This can be detrimental if you don’t have a healthy mind-control.

I hope this article has helped you get better at Product management. Don’t forget to like, subscribe & follow on Medium, if you want to read more articles from me.

Thank you for reading.


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