Perspectives

Zen and the Art of Product Management

In the last few months, I’ve had multiple conversations about the cultural phenomenon that is Headspace, the meditation app. While these were all conversations with meditators, most of them were actually not at all about meditation. Instead, I spoke to a designer about how incredible the visual language of Headspace was. An engineer gushed about how much the app made him look forward to meditating every day. Multiple product people commented on how the app exemplifies good UX principles, and how soothing Andy Puddicombe’s voice is.

At every corner of the internet, Headspace fandom abounds. But what about the content of the app? Mindfulness meditation can help us manage stress, anxiety, and the incessant noise that is just part of existing in a world with Twitter. But, several months in, Headspace has actually reinforced for me a few lessons that are also applicable to product management. So, even if you’re not a meditator (which you should consider, but that’s not for this publication to prescribe), here are some core concepts from Buddhist meditation that can help you hone your product craft.

Monkey Mind

As the name suggests, this is the idea that your mind is like a monkey – swinging from one thought to the next, going ape. In meditation, the goal is to tame the monkey mind so that you can exist in some kind of harmony and not feel exhausted just bouncing around.

Many PMs can probably relate to the notion of constant movement and, at times, complete disarray in their work. Managing shifting priorities, different teams, and sometimes-competing interests can leave one feeling out of sorts.

So what’s the meditation lesson here? Well, you may not like this, but the teaching is actually embracing the chaos, not fighting it. This is not to say that you shouldn’t invest in strategy, roadmapping, and prioritization. But if Buddhism teaches anything it’s that change is the only thing we can count on. This is especially true if you’re at a startup or rapidly-growing company, but the fact of the matter is, being a leader in product is about anticipating uncertainty, and responding with acceptance and calm.

Beginner’s Mind

In Buddhist teaching, attachment is the source of misery. Whether its attachment to material things, narratives we have about the world, or our own opinions, clinging is the source of unhappiness. The solution? Working on ourselves to achieve “beginner’s mind” – the ability to approach the world with fresh eyes and minimal judgment.

In product management, a familiar maxim may be “don’t fall in love with your own ideas.” Great product leaders know that experience can be a blind spot. Sometimes you think you “know” what users want, and so you don’t actually ask them, only to discover what you thought you “knew” was untrue. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says it best: “when we are free from views, we are willing to learn.” Practicing beginner’s mind will keep you closer to data, to your users, and ultimately to better decision making in your product roadmap. It also reminds us to stay curious and open, one of the hallmark characteristics of a great PM.

Practice

Anyone who has tried meditating (or for that matter, building any habit) will tell you that practice is a big part of success. The first few days (or weeks, or months) will feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Unless you’re much more enlightened than most, it will take a while to reap the fruits of your meditation.

Product management is, likewise, about repetition and practice. Although there are increasingly more programs for aspiring PMs, many in the field will tell you that they learned on the job, by trial and error, and have honed their craft over time and, sometimes, products.

In meditation, you need to figure out which meditative practice works for you, what the best time of day is, and how long you can devote to your practice.

In product management, likewise, one size does not fit all. Part of being a great product manager is figuring out what tools and methods work for you: Agile may not be your thing; Slack channels can be a double-edged sword. Whatever systems you put in place, commit to them, but revisit and review them as needed. Remember, change is inevitable.

About the Author

Hillá Meller is the editor-in-chief of ProductCraft. Previously, she was a content specialist at Insert, a mobile engagement platform, and a digital insights analyst at SimilarWeb. A graduate of Yale and Georgetown, Hillá is a life-long nerd.