Products, whether digital or physical, only truly exist when they are in the hands of the customer and once they are applied to the task for which they were designed. In turn, the evaluation of those products by the customer will forever be flavored by who they are and the environment in which they use them. Yet, product management articles and books are often written and delivered within the echo chamber of the profession. Product people will share stories, advice, patterns, and practices. Very worthy norms expound from such discussions, such as being passionately customer-driven, using an experimental mindset, forming hypotheses, and relying on iterative development practices. All this is good, but I find myself wanting more variety and stimulation.

Product management has varying definitions and emphasis depending on the industry or institutional maturity within which you work. Regardless of that emphasis, all Product Managers must arrive at an answer to the question: what is the fundamental value they bring to the business? They either formulate a definitive answer to that question and execute on it daily, or leave the profession. That answer, however, is a living response, one that we edit and expand with experience. With that answer in hand, and the experience backing it up, most of us evolve into becoming a “product leader.” At this juncture, there is a responsibility to continue feeding back into this perpetual debate, at whatever degree of scope, from one-on-one mentoring to public writing and speaking. It is a debate that will never settle down because technology will constantly evolve and so constantly challenge pre-existing ideas of what a product can and should do, and how to approach creating solutions with products. And thus, a PM is consistently challenged to keep answering the same questions.

How do you spot a good PM? What is success, and what is failure? How do you learn to be a PM? All of these questions require input from product leaders to push the role, and the products we build, forward.

I find myself now, many years into my product management journey arriving at a strong intuition for how I should continue to grow and feedback my learnings into the great PM debate. Namely, to stretch beyond product-centric books and articles. To more purposefully hear, and to engage with, a diversity of voices from a broader range of adjacent, or outright alternative, professions, domains, industries, and disciplines. I hypothesize that a more comprehensive cross-disciplinary understanding of the ever-changing social, cultural, and physical environments need to be leveraged by PMs to help them make better product decisions. To understand their customer and their world more elaborately, to work within their organizations with a mindset of open exploration, and to progress their products and careers more thoughtfully. Overall, to be excited and stimulated to extract more out of the role while solving customer problems more effectively and with ever-increasing simplicity and delight.

Adjacent Possibilities

Product Polymath is about going beyond the boundaries of technology, product management, and product development tactics. To rummage around in other disciplines that trigger interesting insights or prompt ideas that would otherwise be lurking out of reach. Such fruitful research and discourse exist, all of it exploring the real world we all live in, and within which we all use the products we do. To understand the breadth of that context is to start lighting cognitive fires in product managers, developers, and founders that could lead to serendipitous discoveries or the positing of hypothesis’ that would have previously been unthinkable.

I strongly believe in a multi-disciplinary approach. A singular focus is an abstraction designed to make the lives of educational institutions easier. Depth is essential, and PMs must achieve a certain depth in their world as a matter of course. But to stretch beyond, and combine that depth with breadth, however shallow, can ignite a whole new world of possibilities. The world is a complex system of interlocking ideas, systems, people, and contexts. Our products must, of course, solve problems and make life easier or more pleasurable, and there is no shortcut to creating products that achieve that goal. There is no getting around the need for tactics and methodologies that zero a product teams focus on solving the right issues for the right customer at the right time. Product Polymath takes that as the foundation and a pre-existing truth. On top of this foundation, the objective is to build new concepts and ideas. However, picture not a cityscape of skyscrapers representing deep and wide-ranging knowledge, but instead a tree, with thin tendrils of exploration branching from a foundational trunk of product development knowledge. Each branch exists as a stimulus, either for reflections back towards the trunk of product knowledge, or for differing perspectives on problems we face today in our daily work, or for further independent study. We then need to step back and let our minds do what they do best. We are forever building hidden layers of understanding that will pay dividends later. In those moments, when our analytical mind quietens, our subconscious starts to surprise us with insights beyond what we could ever get by remaining firmly in the echo chamber of product management theory and tactics. 

The goal of Product Polymath is to be different, interesting, and surprising. But most of all, it is a way to dip into adjacent worlds and bring back valuable influences to the products we build, the teams we work with, and the customers we serve.

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