Mindful Product Management

Sat, Jul 1, 2017

First, mindful product management isn’t an exotic technique that will make you a better product manager. It isn’t about reducing 2,500 years of a tradition dedicated to the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering to a means of shipping software on schedule and under budget. Rather, it’s about extending that tradition’s efforts on behalf of those engaged in product management. It’s beneficial to approach product management mindfully for the same reasons that it’s beneficial to approach anything we do mindfully. Our primary goal, before efficiency and effectiveness, before even maximizing shareholder wealth, is reducing suffering.

Mindful product management, or mindful anything really, is more than simply paying attention to what you’re doing (though that’s not a bad place to start). Mindfulness is engaging in a situation as it is, doing what’s needed right there and then (which might well be nothing at all). For that reason, mindfulness isn’t a practice that lends itself to standardization. Each situation is unique in both its context and its possible results. To be mindful is to recognize that you act only in the present instant between cause and effect, while at the same time recognizing that the correct choice depends entirely on the context leading up to that instant and the results following from it. The mindful choice is made with a full understanding of the context to produce the best result.

Given the infinite complexity of the chains of cause-and-effect running through any moment, the ideal of mindfulness seems unattainable in our mundane experience. In the face of such difficulty–or impossibility–we rely instead on patterns for guidance: industry standards, rules of thumb, best practices, gut feelings, experience, and so on. As undeniably helpful as these are, they aren’t mindfulness. In fact, they’re its opposite. Ultimate mindfulness (or enlightenment) is engaging in a situation without any conceptual mediation at all. It depends on shedding all of the cognitive and emotional aids on which we depend, acting solely in and on the present instant.

Yet as a practical matter, our brain seems to have evolved with pattern recognition and manipulation at its core. It’s not clear that we could function otherwise. And built upon and reinforcing that neurological core are a civilization’s worth of books, courses, advanced degrees, Webinars, and MOOCs offering to make us better product managers. Wouldn’t abandoning that vast body of knowledge and expertise in favor of instantaneous present wisdom be a hubris tantamount to madness? Yes. Yes, it would. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t at the same time cultivate mindfulness. That cultivation comes with years of practice. Due to its evanescence, the fact of mindfulness can’t be conveyed in words. It can only be experienced, and that will happen only through repeated attempts (iteration, if you will). And a career just so happens to offer years of repeated attempts.

We try things and develop familiarity with the experience they yield. No one else can become familiar for us, though they might be able to suggest things we could try to develop the most useful sorts of familiarity. As a beginner on this path, I’ve made many attempts and accumulated years worth of resulting experiences. Perhaps by considering them as an iterative practice of mindfulness, I can both derive some of the insights the tradition promises and offer those insights to any product managers on this path with me. At the very least, I hope to minimize the suffering around me.