Diverse Thinking Requires Diverse Minds: Mental Health and Product Management

Martin North

Have you ever noticed that Product Managers often have career paths that are more… let’s say interesting than others? I’ve certainly observed that a lot of people in the Product profession have followed a long and winding road. And maybe they now feel like they’re home, or maybe this is another fascinating stop along the way, but I don’t think this observation is merely a result of how new the profession is. People who are creative problem solvers, divergent thinkers, and multi-disciplinary maestros are not by nature conventional, and they don’t tend to lead conventional lives.

Which is certainly my story. I was the kid with seemingly unlimited potential, who used that potential to wreak havoc in the lives of those foolish enough to try and teach me. My career includes working in drug rehab, being a singing waiter, writing code, cold calling, and dressing as a koala at a major international business conference. I have been consistently inconsistent in my approach to life. With hindsight, it’s surprising it wasn’t until 2019 that I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I’m still learning what that diagnosis means, but it’s obvious that having ADHD impacts every aspect of my life in both positive and negative ways, including my work. Sometimes I can make spectacular leaps of insight and unlock solutions to problems that seem intractable. At other times tasks that appear simple to others, such as replying to emails or scheduling a meeting seem to be impossible. My relationship to my task list(s) cycles endlessly through determination, dedication, neglect, frustration and despair, sometimes in a single day. As ADHD impairs my ability to manage myself, managing me as an employee can be a wild ride of epic highs and lows.

However, I’ve also come to understand that having ADHD helps shape my strengths as a Product Manager. I’m passionate about solving problems, and I use my energy and enthusiasm to lift my teams. I’m creatively fun, and I don’t take myself too seriously which helps me avoid the traps of ego and power that cause people to stop learning. Even my long and varied career path has provided me with a wealth of experience with different types of people and organisations, that I draw upon constantly. I can’t separate the Product Manager I am, from the person I am. It’s me all the way down.

Being aware of mental health in the workplace requires self-awareness and my diagnosis has certainly made me more aware of my own mental states, and how work life impacts everyone’s emotional wellbeing. Many organisations are embracing employee wellness as a critical success factor and recognise that diverse thinking can be a competitive advantage. However, diverse thinking requires diverse minds. Have you ever considered how your organisation’s ways of working might impact the mental health of those of us whose minds don’t function in what is considered to be the typical way?

Modern organisations have abandoned many traditions that are no longer considered conducive to a healthy work environment. People used to smoke at their desks! But there are still many aspects of work that might seem innocuous to most, but that are sources of dread and anxiety for others. For someone with ADHD, monthly reports, meeting agendas, project plans, and budgets will never be “business as usual”. That’s not to say that we can’t do them, but we will find them immensely more difficult than you might expect. And the effort of constantly appearing not to struggle with tasks that are “supposed to be easy” takes a mental toll. Remember, we’ve been struggling – and mostly failing – at most of these things, all our lives. If someone appears disorganised, you are very unlikely to be the first person – or the last – to make that observation, or to provide “constructive feedback”.

For a workplace to support different ways of thinking, it needs to fully support the different types of brains that can provide that thinking. Of course certain roles require certain strengths, but to expect a Product Manager or Designer to exhibit the same organisational skills as a Project Manager, while also being creative, ignores the reality that not all of us are naturally organised, just like not everyone is naturally creative.

What does this mean for Product leaders? Team members are unlikely to be fully transparent about their needs, due to the social stigma that is still very real. The first step is therefore to acknowledge that you don’t know how any brain will respond to any particular situation. You cannot assume that what you find stressful or inspirational will be viewed the same way by others. In fact you should assume the opposite. If someone is struggling with a particular area of their performance, then approach the situation with curiosity rather than judgement. Starting with a strength-based approach will help you to acknowledge the unique positive attributes of each individual. You may be able to help them find a new strategy that helps resolve the problem, or you might realise that tasks need to be distributed differently, in a way that better suits each individual’s strengths. You hire for a role, but you fill each role with a real person. Flexibility will help you enable the strengths of your team and support them to overcome challenges collectively.

Neural diversity is a given in any organisation. Accepting this will help leaders create a working environment that is safe for everyone and unlock the true potential of all of the unique minds that will drive future success. And if you’re reading this as someone whose brain isn’t “neurotypical”, then remember to focus on your strengths, keep trying to overcome your weaknesses, and forgive yourself when you can’t. The Product profession needs you as you are, not as how anyone else expects you to be.

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Martin North

Martin North | Author

Martin is a product and technology leader, who loves to solve complex problems. With over 10 years of Product Management experience no problem scares him. To every challenge he applies a deep understanding of customers and partners, his life-long obsession with technology, and a unique perspective on how all the elements of a business model connect in a dynamic system.

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