Why the Product Manager Should Also Play Dumb

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Bain Public blog. 

According to Alpha’s 2020 Product Management Insights Report, product management has entered the C-suite. As product management influences more high-level decisions and business strategies, partner alignment/collaboration becomes key. Yet the time and rigor required to gather/validate consumer insights are often at odds with the agility required to maneuver internal politics, leaving a huge window of opportunity for improved collaboration between c-suite executives and product teams.

Beneath all the activities that lead to a product roadmap, OKRs being met, and the cultural alignment element with its emotions, egos, unique styles, and different goals, there lies a product leadership truth from this increasing strategic role: The less prepared you are for meetings, the better you’ll ask questions, listen and influence.

“Dumb” is a great road to success

I don’t prepare, because I didn’t know who I’ll bump into throughout the day. I shun too much preparation. I don’t want to know the answer to a question I’m going to ask.

As the complexity around challenges of product managers has intensified, proposals to sometimes play a “dumb” product manager — a model to shun too much preparation — has become an unconventional approach. You don’t want to know the answer to a question you’re going to ask. This is unsurprising.

C-suites lead the organization’s effort to excel at business strategy, monitoring performance, overseeing revenue and expenses, and evaluating product/market fit. A product manager establishes within the organization a shared set of priorities, decision-making practices, and roadmap objectives that enable the organization to execute its strategic plan and build the momentum needed to hit future milestones.

To grow, a company needs to develop both the skills and discipline to ask better questions and listen to understand the dimensions of problems.

The rigor with which a problem is defined is the most important factor in finding a suitable solution

Let’s look at that rigorous problem definition in more detail. First, don’t try to be the smartest person in the room. By moderating the preparation, you’ll learn the answers from your stakeholders. Many stakeholders have considerable difficulty even identifying which problems are crucial to your product missions and strategies. What you really want is meticulous collaborative discussions, so both you and your stakeholders learn together. Use meetings to interview others, ask dumb questions, and allow them to articulate their problems clearly and concisely.

Use meetings to interview others and avoid making statements

I hate product managers who come with a long list of prepared questions. Because they’re going to depend on going from the fourth question to the fifth question without listening to the answer of the fourth question.

The “ill-prepared” approach consists of asking a series of questions and using the answers to create a thorough problem statement. My favorite questions are basic “help me understand” questions. Also, throw out the jargon, and make it conversational. Ask short questions. The simplest question in the world is, “Why did you do this?” Or what I call what-and-how questions, such as, “What would you do? How did that work last time?” “What do you think about that?” “How often does that happen?” The less you show off preparation to meetings, the better you ask questions, listen, and influence.

The key to playing dumb is listening. If you don’t listen, you’re not a good influencer. The what-and-how interview technique involves others in the solution-finding process. It’s represented best by using the “what” followed by the “how”:

  • What happened, from your point of view? How can we fix this?
  • What’s wrong here? How much of an issue is that, really?
  • What’s your story? How are you doing it now? How could it be done better?
  • What would users do with the proposed feature? How would you use it if you had it?
  • Why did you choose to do this one? How would you choose, knowing what you know?
  • What are you noticing so far? How would you solve this problem?
  • What does the user say, and why do they say it? How does that make you feel?
  • What information do you have that I don’t? How are you going to fix the situation?
  • What specific issues do you need help with? How did you make the decision last time?
  • What do you expect? How would you convince users to do what they didn’t want to do?
  • What’s the most interesting? How do you validate that?

Concentrate solely on the answer, and trust your instincts to come up with follow-up questions. Even if your question is fully answered, be ready to go somewhere with it. There shouldn’t be dead air. One approach is to take the time to pause an extra second to get the other person to come back and elaborate. Then listen, and ask another dumb question by repeating the last one to three words of what they just said. Use the exact words they used to make them feel heard.

  • So if I understand, what you are saying is …
  • Let me repeat what you said …
  • Why is that? Why do you feel that way?
  • Tell me more about that.
  • Can you be more specific?

Ultimately, no one likes to be told what to do

I never go into meetings with an agenda. I am there to learn. If you have a rigid structure, you’re not going to learn.

The frustrating paradox about product management is that you need to identify crucial product problems concisely and to maintain a persistent belief that your perspective is somewhat wrong. As products evolve, you’ll lose control of the details, and you must open up to collecting information and feedback.

We’ve also seen that most organizations are not proficient at articulating their problems clearly and concisely. A lack of systemic communication between teams can result in the delivery of products that miss.

The good news is, the day-to-day role of a product manager is becoming more strategic. Between 2015 and 2020, according to Alpha’s Product Management Insights Report, the percentage of product managers primarily responsible for product strategy rose to 84%. More product managers are running a decision-making process that ensures all perspectives get heard and considered. They listen, observe, and fill the communication and understanding of gaps between people. A product manager aiming to build a meaningful future will think carefully about the “ask dumb questions” approach when engaging with its leadership team.