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Product Management

My product management toolkit (44): “active open-mindedness”

It’s one of the biggest traps that we as product people can fall into: developing tunnel vision, and not keeping an open mind. Some people argue that one has to be single minded in order to be successful. Perhaps this is true if you want to be a successful golfer or an amazing musician, but to develop successful products an open mind is required.

Jonathan Baron is a Professor of Psychology who has extensively studied the concept called “active open-minded thinking” (‘AOT’). To be actively open-minded is to actively search for information that contradicts your pre-existing hypotheses. Such information includes the dissenting opinions of others and the careful weighing of new evidence against old beliefs.

For example:

I believe that

Introducing a vegan pizza

Will attract a new audience segment (i.e. consumers aged 18-25 in urban areas)

I know this is true when we acquire 1m new customers from our target segment buying the pizza within 3 months of its introduction.

In this example, being actively open minded means looking for and taking into account dissenting opinions of others:

  • “Marc, have you looked at this recent market study which shows that 50% of consumers aged 18-25 don’t eat pizza?”
  • “How do we know that pizza is going to be most appealing to our target customers?”
  • “Marc, have you looked at this recent sector analysis, showing that the market for pizza – takeaway or supermarket – is becoming increasingly saturated?”
  • “I think we should start with a food product that we already offer and perhaps change packaging or ingredients and test our assumptions. Comparing the unit economics of this approach versus offering pizzas, it suggests that my proposed approach is more commercially viable.”

There are a number of techniques you can use to encourage such ‘constructive dissent’:

  • Liberating conversation structures – The point of having liberating conversation structures is to encourage free-flowing thoughts and interactions.
  • Wicked questions – ‘Wicked questions’ are a good example of liberating conversation structures (you can find other great examples here). Asking wicked questions helps people in thinking about the double-sided nature of challenges or behaviours. Often, answers to these wicked questions will reveal inherent nuances or contradictions that might not always be obvious. You could ask questions like “How is it that we’re integrated and autonomous at the same time?” or, on a more personal level, “How is it that you’re simultaneously dedicated to your work and fully present for your family?”
  • Plussing – The ‘plussing’ concept involves people including a ‘plus’ every time to comment on someone else’s work. The plus must contain a way to improve or build on the other person’s work. The simplest way to do is by including the word “and” in your feedback, attaching a better idea or suggestion.

Main learning point: Keeping an open mind, and actively looking for (constructive) dissent is critical if we want to create the best products for our customers and challenge our own product thinking!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~baron/papers/aotcog.pdf
  2. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Thinking-Deciding-Jonathan-Baron/dp/0521680433
  3. https://www.liberatingstructures.com/
  4. https://www.liberatingstructures.com/ls-menu/
  5. https://intenseminimalism.com/2015/pixars-plussing-technique-of-giving-feedback/

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