You are the Leonardo da Vinci of Product Management


How many times have you heard a product manager described as being a “jack of all trades, but master of none?"

Have you ever heard your own PM job characterized as having “all of the responsibility, but none of the authority?"

While not particularly optimistic assessments, perhaps, there is good news:

You are the Leonardo da Vinci of product management!

You have chosen to deal with the bigger picture - you provide some of the creative spark and fearless vision that all projects need to keep them going.

Leonardo da Vinci is considered to have been one of the world’s great polymaths. His knowledge spanned multiple areas of expertise, across many fields of endeavor.

Like da Vinci, product managers strive to know a lot about a lot; we need to easily float between the disparate disciplines of the teams we work with - asking questions, listening and learning along the way.

We go where the problem takes us, and adjust quickly as facts change (I wonder if Leonardo called this “pivoting…”). We are able to define and solidify a product vision and direction everyone can get behind.

But that doesn’t always work. Products fail.

You visualized an outcome, spun up teams of super-great people, convinced all the right stakeholders, worked hard to achieve the goal, and... came up short.

Now what?

You’ve already learned how to “embrace” failure, fail “faster,” fail “earlier” and fail "more often.”

These are all healthy, effective ways of analyzing and dealing with the disconnects between expectations and their subsequent, after-the-fact realities.

No doubt about it, failure certainly has much to teach us. If only we could learn some of it before we fail.

Luckily, we can. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.”

It’s that "never fears" part we could all stand to focus more on. It hints at a mindset that exists well before things go awry; a kind of creative precondition that can turn a post-failure embrace into more of a dance with additional possibilities.

People in the sciences have learned a piece of this puzzle. The scientific method holds at its core the premise of preparing for, and learning from, failure before it happens, as well as adjusting to it afterwards (the “embracing”).

It is a continual cycle built into the methodology; failure is to be welcomed and worked with.

Artists are also taught this “pro-failure” stance. They prepare for and chase mistakes, or as Bob Ross called them, “happy accidents.”

I’ve been an artist my entire life. I grew up making art; I studied it, I’ve taught it. Nonetheless, I’ve thoughtfully taken tons of bad photographs, enthusiastically created horrendous paintings and happily committed some very questionable songs to tape.

I’ve gotten incrementally better as I’ve learned from and iterated over these artistic failings, but I think it has been the willful anticipation of failure that has served me best in both art and product management. Most people have similar internal roadmaps they follow. Below are the maxims that keep me at my focused, creative best.

Know your tools

I bet the saying “it’s a poor workman who blames his tools” is at least as old as tools themselves. Probably because it’s the truth.

If you don’t know what tools you have, which of them you’ll need, or how to use them, you won’t be meaningfully prepared to succeed or fail.

You won’t know if or when to switch tools. And you’ll blame all that lack of knowledge on the tools themselves.

What’s in your toolbox? Business rules? Competitive analysis? Testing metrics? Database architecture? User studies?

Familiarize yourself with anything that matters to your project, inside and out, and you won’t be pinning your hopes on that rusty claw hammer you left at home.

Curiosity won’t kill the cat

Explore all options. Pursue all possibilities. The only way to truly know what will work is to actually try things that won’t. As Thomas Edison put it, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

If you can feel confident in the ability each of your “failures” has to teach you something, you stand a better chance at overall success.

Ask yourself, “I wonder what would happen if…,” then find out by trying it.

You did it once, you can do it again

It took your development team three months to write that code, and now they’ll have to scrap it and start over?

That might very well be, but the idea still lives, and the people who implemented it are still super-badasses.

Take a deep breath, and in your mind decouple the actual work it took to get the idea off the ground in the first place from the idea itself, and the people working on it. Your team didn’t “lose” three months. They pursued a possibility. They did it with passion, creativity and technical skill. They can do it again.

“Enough about me. How’s my hair?”

Not everything is about you. Don’t become unnecessarily ego-involved. You want to be able to encourage and leverage failure for the good of the idea.

When you fail, it’s only because it might have been a bad idea, NOT because you and everyone who contributed to it are bad people. Except maybe Janice in Accounting...

Ready, set, fail!

Trusting your skills and being prepared for failure before you even begin is a kind of “informed” bravery. Think of jumping out of a plane. You trust the plane works, you know how your parachute works, and you’ve been taught what to do and when to do it. Nonetheless, there is risk and uncertainty involved in the activity itself.

As product managers, we all know the risks of what we do; things cost money, time costs money, people cost money. But there is also excitement and vigor. See these things for what they are, and fail forward!

This article originally appeared in 100 Product Owners