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Everyone can do product


Or so they think. And the main reason people think this way is the hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon or creeping determinism, is the common tendency for people to perceive past events as having been more predictable than they were.

It's everywhere, the hindsight bias, in personal relationships, at the workplace, in the wider economy, in sports. Product management is also suffering from the hindsight bias. How often did you hear someone using the word "obvious" when talking about product management? Odds are - it's a hindsight bias. Very few things in PMing are obvious, but they can appear that way after the fact.

Why the hindsight bias is especially prominent in product management? Probably because our key activity as PMs is to make decisions. We do that based on the available data, on our product vision and applying our previous experience together with a "product sense". When the decision is made and the outcome is positive, we often hear the decision we took was obvious, logical, and simple to make. And when the outcome is not what was desired - everyone seems to know exactly what mistakes we made. The same doesn't happen with technical decisions as most people don't automatically assume they possess the needed expertise to make technical decisions.

Another aspect of decision-making that we all often overlook is randomness, or more simply, luck. One PM could collect tons of data, analyse it, model and test, align and agree with all the stakeholders. And another PM might ignore all that and go with their intuition. The outcomes of both decisions could be the same due to luck. Combine this with the hindsight bias and it becomes even easier to see why most people think they can do product management.

And... those people are right. In the majority of organisations, the quality of product management has a lot to be desired. Still, so many PMs do not use any data in their decision-making. They either make decisions on a whim if they have that sort of power or go with the popular opinion (of their boss or their team) to avoid conflicts. Some of those decisions turn out fine, some others don't. Often, successes are attributed to us and fails blamed on others. While the process of decision-making is rarely revised and remains poor.

All this results in a mediocre product org that creates mediocre products. And if the product org is mediocre then people are right - anyone could do their job.

A better way?

Judge decision-making, not the outcomes

The first thing they teach you in poker is to judge your decisions, not the outcomes that they brought. This is a pro tip to reduce the influence of luck (or the absence of one) on your long-term performance. A good poker player will analyse their cards, the situation at the table and how it could develop depending on the actions of everyone playing. Their goal would be to judge if the next play is a good play all things considered. When the round is finished and the outcome is known the poker players are not changing their assessment of the play they did, neither if they win or lose. This approach allows them to avoid some of the biases and improve their game long-term.

In product management, we can apply the same approach. We should analyse our decision-making in isolation from the outcomes. Too many factors outside of our control could affect the outcomes. We need to focus on what we can control - the process of making decisions.

Judge the season, not one game

To continue a sporting analogy - many organisations are way too quick to make judgements about someone's performance based on one or just a few "games" played. The same happens in real sports, whether the supporters are often flickering between admiration and hate depending on how their favourite athletes performed in the last game. When they win - they are the best, the GOATs! When they lose - they are the worst and get so much abuse it's weird they would even want to show up to their next game.

In product management things are not that extreme but still challenging for PMs. We are expected to hit the ground running very fast. Be it a new company you're joining, a new product, or a promotion - we expect to start performing right away and get positive outcomes. In some organisations, any mistake, one unsuccessful launch or a decline in a KPI might be a reason for demotion or even the sacking. Such pressure put on PMs incentives them to take less risks and "cover their own ass" first.

A better approach would be to judge PMs' decisions at a distance. Review not only the outcomes of those decisions but also how the decision-making process itself improved. The focus should be on what PMs learned and how they better their game.

Everyone can do a mediocre product

There are literally hundreds of cognitive biases affecting people's judgement. One of the most harmful ones for product managers is the hindsight bias. It appears when people judge the decisions PM made in the past applying today's knowledge. Doing that might result in decisions appearing obvious and easy to make. However, in reality, PMs might have applied a rigorous process for decision-making or not, and they got lucky. That's why the process of decision-making should be analysed and judged independently from the outcomes of those decisions. It's also advisable to analyse a number of decisions to understand if PMs improved in this period.

It's impossible to avoid all the cognitive biases, but if we're aware of them we can at least try to lower down their influence and increase our chances for success.

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