“It is remarkable to what lengths people will go to avoid thought.” - Thomas A. Edison
The Dual Abilities: Volume and Thought
What constitutes a great product team or a great product manager is really two abilities: Volume and Thought. The first ability is to provide enough output, enough volume, to get the ball rolling and garner feedback in the short term. This means engaging with teams, connecting with users, and consistently offering something of value to establish a cycle of rapid feedback. A significant part of this process is about brute force. If there's a probability of achieving product-market fit or finding a solution to a user's problem, more experiments will lead to quicker answers. While the probability of each experiment remains consistent, their independence increases the likelihood of a valuable breakthrough. Volume beats luck.
Deep Thinking vs. Busy Work
The second essential skill revolves around the quality of thought and the importance of steering clear of busy work.This can be visualized as a bell curve:
On the left tail of the distribution, there’s an emphasis on volume without much thought. These are the people throwing spaghetti at the wall until something sticks. A very overlooked way to achieve results by most “smart people”.The right tail of the distribution has a focus on deliberate judgement without overthinking. Knowing that product development is about making decisions with imprecise data and incomplete information requires us to “just do stuff” at a certain point. Again, “volume”.The danger zone lies in the middle, characterized by superficial thinking and low volume work. This central area represents the misconception that merely applying best practices without clear thinking yields any kind of result. It’s where people philosophies about the “right way of doing discovery” takes up more time in a week than actually figuring out “solutions to valid user problems”.
Two opposing ideas
The two opposing axioms in building digital products are:
- Deep thought and experience leads to better judgement, which leads to better products
- The sheer volume generated by “just trying stuff” is the primary precursor of most great products
Now, what is one to do? Engage in deep thought about what the product should do? Or ship 50 features to see which ones stick? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” (src)
The Balancing Act: Deep Analysis and Action
While deep thinking is vital, overanalyzing can become counterproductive.Let us look at an example.
We have a feature idea on the table. A competent sales rep brought it up. It’s a good idea but radically different to what you’ve done so far.
Now, calling in three product strategy meetings where we brainstorm about the given feature and how it fits into our strategy is what I’d call “busy work”.
The best way forward is to either “deeply think about the problem” or “just try it”.
Or maybe first the one and then the other. But not doing some kind of low-intensity hybrid.
Deeply think about the problem
Turn off your WIFI, put your phone into airplane mode. Maybe take pen and paper to visualise something for yourself. But otherwise, avoid distraction. Set a timer for 45 mins.
Write the feature idea on a piece of paper and put it in front of you. And now ... just think.Pull in all the experiences you’ve had professionally, deduce the user problems this solution applies too, write down hypothesis as you are forming them implicitly, etc. - When was the last time you just sat with a problem for 45min in silence?While you might critique this approach as being old-fashioned, I strongly believe that the quality of our decision suffer by constantly working in meetings and having 500 slack notifications per day. But that’s just me.Swiftly actingDeep, insightful thinking can coexist with swift actions.
True mastery (of a PM but also of any entrepreneur for example) lies in knowing when to switch.
When you’ve thought hard about a problem, for 45min, 2 hours, whatever it might be, there is really not much left to discuss. Usually then it is all about getting feedback from the market.Don’t lose time with weeks of data analysis. Just build a thing, prototype a thing, but get something real in front of real people. And do so in volume in order to increase your odds of finding something valuable.Having the humility to know the limits of our “ability to figure stuff out through thinking” and seeing the value in “figuring stuff out by trial and error” is what I spend a lot of time on with product teams.
Volume beats luck and deep thinking avoids busy work
In conclusion, there's a balance to be struck. As per usual.
For me keeping the two principles in mind has done wonders in informing my actions:
- Volume beats luck
- Clear thought (or deep thinking) avoids busy work
Whenever I’m faced with uncertainty, with a decision to make, I consider if I should focus on one (volume) or two (clear thought). I listen to my gut on this. Usually the first answer is “deep thinking”, just because I haven’t thought about the problem before. I set a timer to 45mins. I literally take pen and paper, as I described.
If the answer is Volume, I come up with the absolute fastest way to “try it”. Most of the time this ends up being a Figma prototype of some kind.Both of these principles can sound abstract but they have very clear, real world consequences to how I approach my work. I hope they can do the same to you.