Developing your Product Spidey Sense

Adrienne Tan

Recently, I’ve interviewed folks from the Australian Army, Navy, and Airforce. These people are taught to sense and react to danger before it occurs. They carry out tasks without having to use all of their senses.

They have the physical and mental capacity to evaluate and react to danger on the battlefield. They make decisions without having a commander direct their every move. Soldiers in the Australian Army can put together a gun blindfolded. They can lie in a ditch for hours being bitten by mosquitoes without moving.

product manager supermanIn this sense, they have developed a superpower, and extra sense – a ‘spidey sense’.

Spiderman is known for his spidey sense. This itching, tingling sensation he gets before anything terrible happens. He has this extraordinary ability to sense imminent danger. He can identify and critically evaluate threats and react accordingly, thereby allowing him to navigate and avoid obstacles and harm.

Which Product Manager wouldn’t want that superpower? I believe Spiderman has some of the answers to help us navigate the Product world.

No matter where we work, as Product Managers we feel the accelerated pace of change, the demands of our organisation to outwit competitors, to keep ahead of the market, to work faster, deliver more, be better. Sometimes, it is almost too overwhelming.

Imagine if we can react to market forces, consumer demands, business requests, navigate competitors and other challenges before we know about them? Imagine if we can keep one step ahead, keep our Products safe from harm, ensuring that they grow as predicted?

Well, every Product Manager has the ability to become a Spiderwoman or Spiderman.

Becoming Spiderman

Spiderman took a shortcut to his superpowers by getting bitten by a radioactive spider. But how do Army, Navy and Airforce folks develop their spidey sense?

They train and they practice the same fundamental activities over and over, on a daily basis. Over time these activities become second nature, muscle memory is developed allowing for faster decisions in the heat of combat and allowing for cognitive space for more important thinking.

Thankfully for these roles, there is an imbalance of training time to combat time. This is not the case for Product people who are always in combat time.

As Product Managers, we make a lot of small decisions every day. Our attention is divided across many areas of the business from growth teams to engineers, and we have to think and work quickly to solve small problems.

We don’t have the time nor are we given any time to reflect, consider and gather data to make these everyday decisions. But every small decision made is akin to placing a mini bet, and in order to win these bets, we need to operate intuitively, drawing from our ‘ready and waiting’ knowledge repository.

When it comes time to place the big bets – to design a new Product or re-invest in our existing Product – our spidey sense should also point us in the right direction and tell us how much and what additional research and data we need to gather.

Developing a spidey sense that can fuel our daily decision-making process takes deliberate practice to embed. Practicing things that at first are hard, and doing them until they are easy in safe environments can accelerate the process.

Just like Spiderman, a well-developed spidey sense helps us stay attuned to what’s around the corner. It gives us time to react to the situation and, if the change is significant, we’ll have time to modify our strategy or plans. It means that we know the new entrants who may take market share. It means that our product’s lifecycle can be arrested before it falls off the maturing curve.

How can Product Managers develop their spidey sense?

A couple of ways to develop our spidey sense are continuous learning and simulation sessions.

What is continuous learning? Continuous learning means that we’re on a perpetual journey of gaining new knowledge and skills.

For Product Managers, this means that we have to set aside time to learn about our customer ecosystem, the market interactions and tech trends every week. It’s a non-negotiable activity.

Undertake continuous learning

Firstly, start a knowledge journal. Add data points, information and your reflections in this journal every time you do research. Secondly, find the patterns and draw insights which you can use to fuel your mini-daily decision making.

a) Speak to and observe our customers

As a part of this, we have to speak to all types of customers – buyers, users, influencers. It seems trite to say, but as Product Managers, we can’t really understand our customers without fully understanding their environment. We must leave our desks to be where our customers are, with no specific agenda except to learn about our customer’s problems. No testing our hypothesis, or getting feedback on prototypes or our Products, but simply probing and observing and learning about our customers to strengthen our spidey sense. This seems counter-intuitive to what we’ve been tasked to do. We are always pushed to find immediate answers or “validate” our product hypothesis. But the process of continuous, curious learning will actually give us the answers we seek more quickly.

According to Patrick Campbell, Co-Founder of Profitwell,

“The #1 thing companies can do is talk to customers and launch a customer research program.”

b) Learn from our suppliers

We should be learning from hardware and or software suppliers, manufacturers and other key contributors in our ecosystem, asking about how their business is performing and what changes they’ve noticed in the industry in the last month. These conversations should steer away from sales and focus more on industry developments.

c) Read and listen to Industry commentators

Industry commentators also add to our overall knowledge of the industry. Data, insights and predictions from industry commentators enable us to adjust or temper our opinions about the market.

d) Have a different conversation with our engineers

Most of us are in daily contact and discussions with our engineers. But these discussions are often very focused on a specific Product feature or explicit problem we’re trying to solve together. Try asking engineers what patterns they’re seeing in the current tech stack or where they see the technology used in the industry heading in the future, and why.

You may be having multiple conversations with all sorts of folks already but it’s important to determine if you are having the right type of discussions.

Run simulation sessions

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers 

People in Defence train every day to get ready for battle and so should Product Managers. We’re always in the battlefield making Products without ever giving ourselves any time to train for it. The only time we ever do Product work is when we have to deliver Product work. We never get to develop our skills and fine tune our spidey sense.

Running Product simulation sessions is an “imitation of real-world activities and processes in a safe environment”.

Simulation sessions could take the form of a value proposition design session for a mock Product, a story mapping and a user story creation session for the mock Product. Product Managers could safely practice how to create these artifacts during the simulation session, learning things without risk, so that when we have to do it for a real Product, we’re more than likely to do a better job.

As a Product Manager, developing your spidey sense is fundamental to your Product’s future. Hone and use your spidey sense with routine continuous learning and simulation sessions to give your Product the greatest chance of success, practicing your skills before you have to use them when they count.

Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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