Know What You Don’t Know

Know What You Don’t Know

A common perception of Product Managers within organizations is that we’re somewhat of a “know-it-all” — which is not always the most productive position from which to do our jobs.  Some of this perception is earned — simply a function of the broad base of knowledge, influence, and direction that we are so often assigned.  Some of this perception is biased — because we often have to make decisions based on limited information, people who disagree with those decisions will blame what they perceive to be incompetence and over-reaching.

There are many things that we can use as Product Managers to fight these perceptions — but the single biggest such weapon in our arsenal here is knowing the things that we don’t know or that we’re not confidently competent at, and ensuring that we’re actively seeking to bolster those aspects of our jobs with the support and advice of people that we and the organization trust to provide good guidance.

Knowing Your Limits

Not everyone is good at everything.  I will never, for example, throw a 9-inning no-hitter, win an NBA free-throw shooting competition, nor likely ever win a purse in a League of Legends competition.  In the business world, I’m probably not quite as technical as I could be, and accounting and finance topics are things that have never been my strongest areas of responsibility.  And all of that is perfectly fine — by knowing the things that I don’t know, and the areas that I may need to bolster my own understandings, I’m actually a stronger Product Manager than if I tried to “fake it until I make it” and wind up annoying those around me who actually know their stuff.

Either due to the general personality type that’s drawn to Product Management, cultural pressures from inside or outside the company, or even just the need to get things done on a daily basis — it’s all too often the case that Product Managers think that admitting they don’t know something is a sign of weakness, and that it will be used against them later on.  While that may be true in some environments, it’s almost always worse to pretend that you know more than you do, and to not engage with the experts around you in making your decisions and plans.

Choosing Your Allies

Once you know the things that you may need help with on occasion, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to spend your social capital to build a team of people upon whom you can rely to support your weak spots — and hopefully to help you build your knowledge in this areas as well.  Choosing your allies isn’t just about picking the most expert person on the topic and expect that their knowledge will somehow rub off on you through social osmosis.  Rather, what you’re really looking for are the latent Product Managers in your organization — the people who understand how to lead through influence and who respect the role of the Product Manager on the team.

You want to make sure that the allies you choose can support you not only with knowledge, but with their influence as well, that they’ll have your back when you make decisions, and that they’ll raise objections in private with you when you say or do something that’s counter to their wisdom.  You’re going to leverage not only their knowledge and experience, but also their reputation — and that requires mutual trust.

Walking the Line

Once you’ve assessed your weak points, and have assembled a team of supporters that can help you fill in some of those gaps, you’re ready to take on the world.  Or, at least your management team.  But this is where a balance is needed, and where your true ability to lead through influence will shine — you need to be sure that you’re giving credit to your supporting team when making decisions, while at the same time ensuring that your own credibility isn’t being “watered down” by the work and knowledge that you’ve relied on.

There’s really no universal rule on how to do this, and it’s going to be highly dependent upon the specific culture that you find yourself in.  Some companies are much more collaborative, and not only supportive of leveraging others’ knowledge and guidance but reward it.  Others (far too many) see a reliance on others as a weakness and a sign of incompetence or ignorance.  The important part, though, is making sure that you’re providing the credit that you can to the people who supported you, while ensuring that you present a strong and compelling presence as Product Manager.

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