The Role of Creativity in the Life of a Product Manager

The Role of Creativity in the Life of a Product Manager by Mukesh Gupta

I have been invited to deliver a talk at an event titled – “A Day in the Life of a Product Manager“, which is scheduled for tomorrow (4th March 2017) and the talk is about “The role of creativity in the life of a product manager”.

I personally believe that creative thinking is a critical skill that all of us need to develop among us but it is even more relevant if we want to be a product manager and give birth, grow and mature a product.

First, lets talk about a few successful products and the stories about how they became successful. We will then try to learn what did the product managers (in some cases, entrepreneurs themselves) do so that their products became successful.

10-22-38: Astoria:

This marks the date and place where the photocopiers, that we know of today, in its true sense was born.

Chester Carlson was a patent attorney in Mallory’s, while studying law. As he worked at his job, he noticed that there never seemed to be enough carbon copies of patent specification, and there seemed to be no quick or practical way of getting more. The choices were limited to sending for expensive photo copies, or having the documents retyped and then re-read for errors.

It occurred to him that it would be a good idea if he could develop a machine which could take these documents and create copies quickly and cheaply. For many months, he spent a lot of time in the New York Public library trying to read and learn everything there was to the imaging process. He realised that he would not focus on the traditional process (chemical) of copying as there were many people who were exploring that side of imaging. He decided to experiment with a little known field of photoconductivity and after years or tinkering in a makeshift lab, he and his assistant Otto Kornei were able to copy this exact picture using their machine.

It was still a struggle trying to convince someone to invest in the technology and develop it into  product. It was in 1959 that the Haloid company finally was able to launch The 914 copier, which went on to become a phenomenal success. Thus started the industry that revolutionised the world.

You can read the entire history of the birth of xerography here.

Pantone Color Matching:

One an eventful day in the early 1960’s, Lawrence Herbert, the co-owner of a printing company named Pantone was fuming because a simple job ruined his entire week. In those days, every dye manufacturer used their own proprietary way to name the colours and what went into it. No two shipments of the same colour would match; no two dyes, with same name and pigments from different dye manufacturers would match, which caused a lot of challenges for each printer.

He had enough of this trouble and in a fit of anger decided to do something about it. He thought why can’t everyone use the same colour book to produce colour. So, with this insight, he set out to imagine and develop an alternate reality for his world. All he did was to figure out a way to match a specific colour to a number, which then became a global, common language that everyone in the industry would speak in. So, if someone needed a specific shade of Yellow, they would just ask for Pantone 123 (a daffodil Yellow) and irrespective of who or where in the world sold that colour, it would be exactly the same.

He created a sample page to show how this would work and sent it out to ink makers. Its more than 50 years now and his catalogue and system is still being used worldwide, not just by ink makers but by everyone who uses colour in some way or format. This simple catalogue has spawned an organisation that dominates the colour industry.

They are so important to the fashion & visual art industry that they predict the trends in terms of colour that they see playing out in the market, based on which colour seems to have had the most demand in the previous period.

They have announced that the colour of the year 2017 is going to be Pantone Greenery. So, get ready to see a lot of green all around you.

The Suitcase and The Wheel: 

Thousands of years ago, there were two important inventions, the wheel and the sack. As a frequent traveler, I always wonder why it took so long to put rollers on that sack to create wheeled luggage.

“It was one of my best ideas,” Bernard D. Sadow said the other day. Mr. Sadow, who was at that time a vice president  at a Massachusetts company that made luggage and coats, is credited with inventing rolling luggage.

It was Bernard Sadow was waiting  at the customs while coming back home from a family vacation. As he carried two heavy suitcases through the airport, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

Inspiration hit him and he said to his wife –  ‘You know, that’s what we need for luggage,’. When he got back to work, he took casters off a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a big travel suitcase and it worked. He was elated. He got a United States patent No. 3,653,474, for this invention.

“Rolling Luggage,” as he called it, did not take off immediately, though. He recalled the many months that he spend rolling his prototype bad on sales calls to department stores. Finally, he was able to find a believe in his idea in the form of a manager of a Macy’s store, who ordered a few of this product.   to order a few.

“People do not accept change well,” Mr. Sadow said, recalling the many months he spent rolling his prototype bag on sales calls to department stores in New York and elsewhere. Finally, though, Macy’s ordered some, and the market grew quickly as Macy’s ads began promoting “the Luggage That Glides.”

This still did not take off as much as he would have liked. It really took off, once an airline pilot, Robert Plath, affixed two wheels (instead of four) and a long handle to suitcases that rolled upright that the luggage with wheels took off.

What do we learn from them

Finding Opportunities for New Products:

Opportunities are all around us. As the saying goes.

“Opportunities are all around us but are dressed as problems”

We need to be aware of these and identify them for the opportunity that they present. It takes an inventive mind or a creative one to recognise the opportunity that is disguised as a problem or a challenge. Most successful products are created either by serendipity or through the process of someone actually trying to solve a problem that they experienced themselves.

In either case, successful product managers are not only able to identify these opportunities but are also able to convince people around them of the true opportunity that lies therein.

Finding Early Adopters for Your Idea/Product:

Irrespective of how great an idea or a new product is, there will most likely be resistance to adopt the same. It is inherent nature of mankind to be biased against creativity. It is the role of the product manager then to overcome this bias against creativity and win the first few early adopters of the idea – first within the organisation and then amongst their prospective customers.

In order to be able to do that, you need to understand the innovation adoption curve, know who is potentially an early adopter and what will win them over (data, emotion or a combination).

It takes creativity for you to be able to tailor the idea according to the internal stakeholders or a prospect to win them over.

Building Your Product & Going-to-Market:

Being a product manager is also about communicating your ideas to the actual teams that will build and get them to build it. As any product manager will tell you there is a big chasm between what you think that the product should look like and function and what it could potentially end up looking and functioning like.

If I were to identify one step in the entire product management cycle that has the biggest potential to derail the entire product success, it would be this step. As a product manager, if you are unable to clearly articulate the vision of the product to the actual developers of the product, there is a good chance that you will not get what you want.

We also need to understand that each stakeholder (customers, senior management, developers, product managers, marketing managers, sales executives) in the product management cycle speaks a different language. It takes ingenuity, creativity and clarity of thought and communication to ensure the understanding of all the stakeholders about what the product is and will do, is the same.

Influence with No Authority

As a product manager, we will not have any direct authority over any of these teams. While everyone tells us that we are the CEO of our products, they all forget to give us the authority that needs to go with it. So, as product managers we need to be able to influence all the stake holders to do what we want them to do and in the timeline that we want them to do it in.

Any one who has attempted to do this can vouch for the fact that this is no easy feat. We need to be creative about how we engage and communicate when we talk to each stake holders and speak to them in their own knowledge.

So, How do we become more creative:

Sharpen our Observation skills:

Author, teacher and a recovering lawyer, Amy Herman, in her book – Visual Intelligence shares a process by which we can sharpen our ability to observe what is happening around us better. She uses the acronym – COBRA.

  • C – Concentrate on the camouflaged. Look for things that are not very obvious.
  • O – One thing at a time. Keep your focus on one thing at a time. Watch it in detail.
  • B – Take a Break. Go for a walk. Do something else.
  • R – Re-align your expectation. Let go of any preconceived notions that you might have about the situation.
  • A – Ask someone else to look with you. Take a second opinion.

You could also learn from James Gilmore’s book “Look” and use the different lenses to look at the situation through. I have written a detailed review of the book and the process here.

Ask Interesting Questions & Solve Interesting Problems:

One way to increase our ability to become creative or come up with creative solutions is by asking interesting questions. Questions that allow us to dream up, be someone else, travel through time or take a completely different perspective. In order to be able to ask interesting questions, we first need to identify and attempt to Solve Interesting Problems. These are problems that typically, people live with, without doing anything about. These are problems that everyone takes for granted. What are such problems that you are facing? What are such problems that your customers are facing?

Understand our bias against creativity and Learn to address it:

Jennifer Mueller, in her book, Creative Change, argues that we are inherently biased against creative ideas and explains why this is so. She also prescribes ways that we can not only overcome our own bias against creativity, but also help people around us to overcome their bias against creativity. Learn, practice and hone this ability. You can listen to the conversation I had with Jennifer on this topic here.

Connect and Combine:

The ability to come up with creative ideas is very much like any other language that we speak or learn. We first need to understand and know our alphabets, then we need to learn to combine these alphabets into words, then words into sentences and then sentences weaved into a story. The same way, we need to know about different ideas from different industries and contexts that we are then able to combine and connect and improve to come up with our very own creative idea. So, we should give ourselves the opportunity to get exposed to as many ideas (especially from outside of our own field of expertise) as possible.

Take some Risks and be prepared to Fail:

Being creative means that we are taking a chance, which means that there will be times when we might not get what we want and fail. That is fine as long as the failure is not hindering our chance to try next time again. That is even better, if we learn from our failure.

Think of it like this – we are all diamonds that are raw and need to go through the process of polishing so our true character can come out. These small, tiny failures build up our ability to not only fail and learn from the failure but also our ability to know when to take a leap of faith and when not to – both being critical in the success of any creative venture.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, I would only like to argue that some of the most important skills that we all need to develop if we are to succeed as a product managers are:

  1. Ability to observe and find opportunities.
  2. Ability to come up with creative problems to solve and creative solutions/perspectives.
  3. Ability to talk to different stakeholders in their respective languages.
  4. Ability to influence without authority.
  5. Ability to do all of this on a tight timeline.

The one common thread that runs through each one of these is the ability to think creatively.

There are many more things that we can do to improve our ability to become creative. These are just starting points and set us going in the direction that will help.

The Tale of Amar, Akbar, Anthony and What They All Need to Succeed

Three Friends

Meet three friends – Amar, Akbar & Anthony.

Amar is an entrepreneur. He thinks that he is unemployable and wants to always remain his own boss. He is self-driven, creative, knows what he wants and has the ability to inspire people. He is not afraid of taking risks and following his dreams. He dreams big and wants to make it big some-day. He believes in his own ability and pursues his dreams. He co-founded a startup and is busy creating the next billion dollar product.

Akbar is also like Amar, but a bit more conservative. He wants to go after his dream but at the same time doesn’t want to bet everything on it. He went through the whole bit – did well in school, became an engineer and ended up in a good, well paying corporate job. However, he is not satisfied with this job and the salary. He wants to do something more. He also wants to have an impact. He secretly wants to be like Amar but doesn’t want to leave the security of his well-paying job.

Anthony is different. He did the full bit – did well in school, college and ended up in a good paying corporate job. He is happy with his job. He is more focused on his private hobbies – wants to spend time with family, wants to travel and see the world, read, play some sport, etc. He has no aspiration of making creating an impact in the world. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and aspires to become the head of a unit in his company or some other company that pays him better.

I am sure that each one of us could relate to one of these three characters, not entirely fictional.

In each case, there are certain fundamental skills that each one of them need to work on and improve at if they want to achieve their goals.

Key Skill – Ability to Influence

One such skill is the ability to convince and influence people – physically (in-person) and virtually (in-absence).

There is a lot of resources that are available for us to learn how to persuade and influence people when we are with them in-person. Some really good resources are books by Robert Cialdini (Influence & Pre-suasion), presentation skills, communication skills training and many more. This is also an area where the feedback for performance (yes, it really is a performance) is immediate (verbal or non-verbal), all of us know where we stand when it comes to our skills and if we are not good, we decide to do something about it.

The area where I think we miss out on is the ability to persuade people when we are not around.

So, in order for Amar to succeed in building up his product to success, he will need to be able to create copy that can convince or persuade his customers to open up their wallets. This copy will include the packaging of the product, product brochure, product website, campaign emails that he will send to his prospective customers and a lot more that he will need to do.

In order for Akbar to succeed in becoming a successful intrapreneur, he would need the ability to convince his organisation of his ideas. He will have to write emails that are persuasive, he will have to write up project plans and new product description and what they will do, that are able to persuade his senior executives to fund his ideas.

In order for Anthony to succeed in becoming a business unit head, he would need the ability to convince his boss to give him the promotion that he wants, he would need the ability to write persuasive emails that will inspire his team to rally around the idea/project that he is driving so that it becomes a success.

Conclusion

So, in short, irrespective of whether we relate to Amar, Akbar or Anthony, one key skill that we all need to learn and improve upon is the ability to write persuasive text or COPY.

One way to learn how to write copy, which is a bit crude, but works wonderfully, is to copy by hand, copies or emails or news paper advertisements that have worked really well.  I have tried this and I can say for sure that this definitely helps but is an approach that not many people have used before.

And Ray Edwards is a successful copywriting coach, who uses his own unique process to come up with a copy. You can use the same method to come up with an email that can convince for you, or create a sales pitch that can convince your customer or write a project plan that can convince senior management to open up their budgets and fund your idea.

Ray has just launched a free online course that will teach how to write persuasive copy. I have already registered for this free course. I recommend that you  register for the same as well. This is one skill that every Amar, Akbar and Anthony needs to build upon to achieve their dreams.

There are courses on copy writing that are available on Skillshare, or the one offered by Ray or on any other platforms.

One of the most important skills to succeed in a Gig Economy - Writing Good Copy Click To Tweet

It is imperative that we all learn to write good COPY. This could be one skill that can potentially have a significant impact on our careers.

You can check our some great examples of good email copy here and some advertisement copies below.

What Keep us from Living Upto Our Potential and How to Overcome It?

What Stops Us from Living Upto Our Potential and How to Overcome the same by Mukesh Gupta

Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson are documentary filmmakers based in Gothenburg, Sweden, who have worked together since 2013. They created a short film where they recruited 67 people who have never jumped into a swimming pool from a height of 10m (by paying them an equivalent of 30 USD) and filmed these participants while they decided to jump or not and their actual jump.

Maximilien, on his website says,

People who have never been up there before have to choose whether to jump or climb down. The situation itself highlights a dilemma: to weigh the instinctive fear of taking the step out against the humiliation of having to climb down.

TEN METER TOWER is an entertaining study of the human in a vulnerable position.

Before we move on and I share my perspective about the experiment and the dilemma, lets first watch the video.

What is Happening here

In my opinion, the experiment not only captures the emotions of the participants really well, it also informs us of human behaviour, when confronted with a difficult choice.

This difficult choice could be about quitting a bad job, could be about starting a new venture, could be about getting out of a bad relationship or even about having a difficult conversation with someone we care about. Each one of these situations, puts us in a very similar position as the dilemma faced by the participants in the study.

And we typically react the same way that the participants react. Some of us chicken out and some of us are able to push through the fear and uncertainty and face the fear. It is easier when see someone do it just before we attempt.

This fear of unknown or ambiguity is the single biggest reason why most people never realise their true potential and many dreams are never fulfilled. There are myriad reasons why this fear is so crippling, not just psychologically but physically as well.

One way to explain this fear is something that Jonathan Haidt proposed. He argues that the human mind can be likened to the combination of a rider and an elephant that he rides. The rider is the part of the brain that is rational system. This is the part that can plan and decide based on evidence and data. The elephant is the part of the brain that is emotional. This system is geared towards survival and if there is a remote chance that this system senses any danger, it can and will override all other system and control our reactions.

Now, it was the elephant that was controlling the people in the experiment above. Their rider knows that they are not in mortal danger by jumping off into the pool from 10m height. They have seen many people do it and come out unharmed. However, their elephant is too strong and afraid. That is the reason why, one person even feels his knees go weak. This is a clear sign that the elephant is in control.

What can we do about it:

The question then is the following:

Why are some people able to go ahead and take the plunge, while others back off? And what can we do so that this fear doesn’t cripple us in the future?

The reason why some people are able to go ahead and take the plunge is because their elephants trust their riders a lot. This happens because in the past the rider has got the elephant to take micro-risks and the elephant remembers that it was not mortal and that it was ok. At times, it even felt good after having done what the rider asked it to do. So, when it comes to taking this risk or facing this challenge (or for that matter any similar challenge, where there is no mortal danger), the elephant is able to trust the rider (albeit after a bit of coaxing – this is exactly what happens when you tell yourself, common, you can do it or something similar) and hence takes the plunge with the rider.

This is also the reason why, even after having seen a friend of your’s take the plunge and come back up unscathed, there are some of us who will still not take the plunge. This is because, our elephant doesn’t trust our riders enough, yet.

Just like in any relationship, we can do work to build this trust. In order to do so, we need to take tiny steps, that the elephant is uncomfortable but not crippled and show that it is ok. Then as trust builds, continue to increase the amount of risk and ambiguity so that the elephant starts to trust the rider and his senses.

What this means is that in order for us to succeed in overcoming our fear of failure, we need to fail small. If we want to overcome our fear of public speaking, we need to do small public appearances. IF we want to be creative and original, we need to start slow and show our creativity and originality. If we want to be able to have the uncomfortable conversations,  we need to start small and start having conversations that are not necessarily pleasant and work on. If we want to write a book, we start by publishing on a blog. If we are worried about singing on stage, we start singing in front of our families and friends and train ourselves.

Conclusion: 

As someone wise has said,

The only way to overcome fear is to go through it.

We are living in a world where creativity and originality will become more and more important. We need to be able to build our capacity to be original.

As James Victore says in his Dangerous Ideas

Failure is Your Best Option

If we are to fulfil our full potential and live a life that we are capable of living, we need to get comfortable with the idea of failure.

What is critical here is that we go through the loop –

  • Try something new.
    • It worked
    • It failed
  • Reflect on what happened
  • Learn from the reflection
  • Repeat

This is what I call the TR/LR loop which is critical in learning anything.

As long as we are able to get our elephants to trust our rider, we will be able to move forward and take some of these risks and have a better chance of fulfilling our potential.

PS: This film, titled Ten Meter Tower’ appeared at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is part of a series produced by independent filmmakers who have received support from the nonprofit Sundance Institute.

PS: Here is a short video that in which Dan Heath explains the Elephant and the rider metaphor really well.

A small request:

If you liked what you read/heard, I would request you to head over to my patreon page and become a patron for the blog/podcast. You could do so by contributing anywhere from a single dollar to about 1000 USD depending upon how much you like the blog/show.

Think of it like the following – I will bring thought leaders to your door step and in return all I am asking is for you to spend just enough to get a cup of coffee for the expert that is in your home. 

I would like to keep this podcast ad-free and need your support regarding the same. You can also find some very interesting artists whom you can also contribute for.

I myself support James Victore as a patron. If you are an artist yourself, consider becoming a patron for James as well or even set-up your own Patreon Page here.

How to Get Better at Working Remotely #FutureOfWork

How to Get Better At working REmotely by Mukesh Gupta

We are entering an era where more and more of our work is going to be done not in office but elsewhere, either because commuting to office is getting worse due to traffic or because a lot of the people who work are not full-time employees but individual service providers or because of ubiquitous availability of connectivity.

My work involves a lot of travel for me and which in turn means that I am working out of cabs or airports, Starbuck’s or hotel rooms. So, in the past six years of working remotely, I have gained some interesting and may be even counter-intuitive learnings about working remotely.

I must say that I found it tough to work remotely. For me, the environment of people all around me working on their laptops or talking into their phones is a big part of my considering myself to be at work. So, my productivity used to be remarkably lower when I was working remotely when compared to my productivity when I was working out of my office. I know that a lot of my friends and colleagues share this loss of productivity with me. This is why, when Marissa Meyer revoked the work from home policy at Yahoo, I was vocal in my support of her decision.

However, I have also realised that my productivity when working remotely has been constantly rising in the past few quarters and I felt it would be a good idea to share some of the learnings from my improvement in the hope that it helps you and people in your team:

Working Remotely ≠ Working from home:

Even though I have a full office set-up for myself at home, I have found that working out of my home doesn’t work for me. Somehow, the physical space of my home doesn’t allow me to focus on work. This doesn’t mean that you can’t work from home. However, it is important for us to realise if working from home works for us or not.

If you are like me and find it to be less productive, then it is important that we find some space close to our home that then becomes our work space.

This could be a cafe close to our home or a hotel lobby or a co-working space that is close to our homes. This way, we benefit from not having to commute long distances but at the same time do not lose our productivity because of working from a space that hinders our productivity.

Work from the same or similar place:

One of the behavioural insights that I have learnt by studying a lot of the works done by many behavioural scientists is that physical space have a significant impact on our emotional state and therefore on our productivity. So, it is a good idea for us to find a specific kind of space that works for us and then stick with that kind of space, so that we emotionally connect that space with productive work.

I find that when I am working out of a cafe (more specifically from a Starbucks cafe), my productivity is much higher when compared to working anywhere else. So, when I am travelling outside my city and at times even within my home town, I prefer to go to a Starbucks cafe and work from there rather than go all the way to my office or work from home. I know that there is a Starbucks cafe in every city that I generally travel to and the physical and emotional space of each one of these cafe is very similar to one another. So, even when I am in different stores, I feel like I am in the same kind of space, which is familiar to me and allows me to increase my productivity.

Specific work at Specific Place:

We all do different kinds of work – some operational, some analytical and hopefully some creative. I find that it is a good idea to associate certain spaces with certain kinds of work. I know that I am extremely productive when I am doing my operational stuff, network to build influence within my organisation, when I am in my office. Same way, I am at my creative best when I am at the Starbucks cafe and my analytical best when I am in a hotel room (or a meeting room in my office), when there is no one to disturb me. I find that it is easy and more productive for me to read when I am in an airplane or in the back of a cab or listen to an audio book when I am driving.

It takes some effort for us to what space works for what kinds of work. But once we do know about this, I think it is best if we schedule our work in such a way that we are able to leverage the best space for the kind of work that we plan to do on any given day.

Conclusion:

Irrespective of where we work remotely, I think it is important that we take time to do the following:

  1. Get up and exercise. It can be as simple as getting up and going up for a short, quick walk or a burst of sit-ups or push-ups or skips.
  2. Stay hydrated. When we are working remotely, from a cafe, for example, there is  good chance that you end-up consuming a lot of tea/coffee vs water. It is critical that we stay hydrated.
  3. Use the time we save productively. One of the benefits of working remotely is that we save time commuting to and from office. It is a good idea to invest that time on educating or training ourselves. I do a lot of reading (you can follow what I am reading on GoodReads here).

Also, by taking time and being mindful of the space where we are working and the impact it has on our productivity, we can start identifying ways to improve our productivity while also continuing to improve ourselves.

The ability to do productive work remotely is going to be critical in the near future. Click To Tweet

A small request:

If you liked what you read/heard, I would request you to head over to my patreon page and become a patron for the blog/podcast. You could do so by contributing anywhere from a single dollar to about 1000 USD depending upon how much you like the blog/show.

Think of it like the following – I will bring thought leaders to your door step and in return all I am asking is for you to spend just enough to get a cup of coffee for the expert that is in your home. 

I would like to keep this podcast ad-free and need your support regarding the same. You can also find some very interesting artists whom you can also contribute for.

I myself support James Victore as a patron. If you are an artist yourself, consider becoming a patron for James as well or even set-up your own Patreon Page here.