Ignorant and curious or worldly and wise

I spoke to someone about being a Product Manager and what made them successful in the role. Of course, whole books have been written about the topic so I don’t think I can do it justice on one blog article.

One topic stood out for me though – the value of a wise and experienced Product Manager (and the risk).

Product Managers can add enormous value to an organisation if they really understand the organisation’s customers AND they really understand how to manage product development AND they really understand the organisation itself.

It can be hard to be an effective Product Manager if you fall short on any of these. For example, even if you know your customers and know how to build a product, but do not know how to get things done in your organisation or how the internal stakeholders interact, you will struggle to do great work.

This suggests that we want Product Managers who are both skilled and knowledgeable.

But what if the reverse is true? What if expertise is a weakness in the role rather than a strength?

  • What if expertise means you know what to look for, and since you know what to look for you miss things?
  • What if people turn to you because you are an expert and they take your word for things rather than challenging you or creating their own hypotheses from their observations?

The case for ignorance

One of my strengths as a coach is my frequent, complete ignorance. My lack of a well-educated opinion means that I must seek to understand what others think. My foolish questions and reflecting back of answers can sometimes uncover new insights, even for the experienced coachee.

Can this work for a PM though?

As a new PM, you need to establish credibility, and complete ignorance is not the best approach.

In fact Expertise is great in any field. It feels good to be respected and learning to master something is extremely fulfilling in its own right. It also creates credibility with stakeholders and helps to drive good decisions.

Sometimes though, expertise means you don’t need to listen to others. Instead you can educate and advise them.

I know – we should always listen, but sometimes it is good to actually hear a single, clear view of the way forward. I guess, in theory, the PM should listen to all views and then demonstrate the sagacity of King Solomon in determining the way forward. Inn practice it is sometimes better to have a consistent view that we can test and respond to.

This presents a challenge for a new PM, or a PM crossing from one field to another.

However, the competence and competence of the PM also comes at a cost, that the new, ignorant PM is incapable of paying.

So – if the new, potentially ignorant PM is neither experienced or competent in a field – how can their ignorance be an advantage?

Firstly, people speak up more when they have to. The knowledge that someone else has the answer makes people, potentially, guess what the person will say, rather than what they think the answer could be. It also means that people will question the answers less.

This is a clear gap – if we lock in the assumptions of the expert and do not challenge that expertise, then we have essentially replaced the entire scientific management of the product management process with the high priest approach practiced by people back in the days of the pyramids. While that worked for building pyramids, I am not sure if it works in a competitive, rapidly evolving product ecosystem.

There is another, often unseen, advantage to ignorance too, as long as it comes with humility and curiousity.

While displaying expertise can build credibility, listening to others and recognising their contribution can also do wonders for building strong relationships and coalitions. So the curious, open minded (ignorant) PM can create a great product coalition by making sure that the different views of stakeholders are honestly shared and understood – not for judgement but for exploration.

So expertise can shut people down while a willingness to display ignorance (with humility and curiousity) can build coalitions and wise crowds.

Which is better?

Which is better then – expertise or ignorance? It stands to reason that we want to work with experts, but at the same time I think we under-utilise our ignorance in all the roles we play.

So maybe the best answer is to start with some expertise and then leap on every chance to show that you learned something. In fact not just what you learned but who you learned it from and what the process was.

This is not about faking it (either expertise or ignorance) it is about using whichever tool is available to you at the time. At least that is my expert opinion 🙂

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