I spent the last couple days in San Francisco attending my first Mind the Product conference.

On top of marveling at this year’s venue, enjoying the happy hour kickoff, and soaking up a handful of Marty Cagan quotes, I had the opportunity to speak with incredible product managers on the ground floor. With over 1,500 attendees, the energy from the crowd alone set the tone for a multi-faceted event that left me feeling inspired.

Key Takeaways From My Favorite Mind the Product 2019 Presentations

Throughout the conference, we attended about a dozen thought-provoking presentations. They ranged quite a bit in topics, but one major theme was consistent and echoed throughout this year’s conference: product managers need to learn to let go.

1. You aren’t always right.

Michael Sippey, VP Product, Medium

As a product manager, you should have a “unified theory of work”. In his talk, Michael Sippey recommends product managers rinse and repeat the following:

  1. Make a to-do list
  2. Prioritize your to-do list
  3. Do that list in order
  4. Constantly communicate those last three points

Sippey doubled-down on how important prioritizing is for clarity and focus. Therefore, banish any unordered lists you have and replace all your bullets with numbers. And finally, Sippey touched on something I heard again from more speakers all day: Learn to let go. Even though product managers are typically optimists, they also tend to be Type A people that want to be right and have a hard time flexing their “let it go” muscle.

Sippey recommends redirecting your “I need to be right” focus onto answering the three most important questions a product manager has to answer:

  1. What problem are we solving?
  2. Who are we solving for?
  3. How will we measure success?

2. Be a product director, not a product manager.

Fareed Mosavat, Director of Product Lifecycle, Slack

In a similar spirit, Fareed Mosavat’s talk and experiences with product management came through his lens of working at Pixar for many years and the importance of letting creativity flourish.

Product managers want to spec out everything, but shouldn’t. Over specificity stifles creativity. He commented that having “manager” in your title counterintuitively implies what your role should be management versus product direction. Product managers will have greater success collaborating with their team if they reframe their identity as “product director.”

Mosavat encouraged the audience to remember that creatives can’t be managed without being moved to build things. Logic alone doesn’t move creative people quite like a great story (and not just user stories). Therefore, feedback, in particular, needs to be communicated as a holistic theme rather than a sentence level.

In short, be a product director, not a product manager.

3. Return the voice of the customer back to the customer.

Tricia Wang, Co-Founder, Sudden Compass

Wang’s talk was a great reminder that product managers don’t own the voice of the customer. Neither do the researchers, founders, marketers, designers, or other PMs. No one person should be the singular voice.

“We need to return the voice of the customer to the customer,” Tricia Wang.

The danger there is that it’s a slippery slope to transitioning from “user-centered” design to “me-centered’ design. Product managers need to continuously talk with users directly and bring their voice into all of the product strategy communication. Real customer centricity is a cross-functional effort.

4. Keep the focus on the customer.

Steve Portigal, Author, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

Portigal’s talk was rich with tactical examples of how to conduct customer interviews without trying to solve their questions or issues on the call. First, Portigal recommends that product managers ask specific questions rather than general questions.

“The last time you did X, how did you…” Then, ask if that represents a pattern.

When answers start general, ask specific questions: “Could you be specific?”

The questions you ask in user research need to be 100% focused on the user. Portigal recommends you should even try to mimic and use the same language as the user. Don’t lead the witness and avoid putting answers in your questions. Although you might want to sound empathetic, it’s important to hold off on saying things like, “I’m the same” or providing any advice until the very end.

If a user asks a question about your roadmap—deflect, deflect, deflect. Once you answer, then you become the authority. The best way to deflect is to ask the user “Why is this important?”

Keep in mind during these user research interviews that people have a high tolerance for “good-enough” solutions. So don’t feel obligated to act on all the feedback. Instead, ask yourself, “does it satisfy and suffice?”—or as Portigal coined it, “satisfices.”

5. Stop fixating on the ‘right’ answer.

Teresa Torres, Product Discovery Coach

For any product manager to be successful, the first step is to take your ego out of the equation. Torres also encouraged the audience of product managers to stop fixating on the right answer (all the while maintaining a state of doubt longer than you’re comfortable with).

Instead, the “right” answer needs to be justified with data and proof of work. Torres encouraged us to remember how, just like in school, some answers may be better or worse than others. But in school, the person deciding that was your teacher. Now, it’s the highest-paid person’s opinion (HIPPO).

“You are not one feature away from success. You never will be,” Teresa Torres.

The best way to help the HIPPO understand why your answer is the “best” answer is by showing your work. That gives stakeholders more to work with. Because even if a product manager works tirelessly at finding the “best” answer, if they struggle explaining and bringing others along their process, the “best” answer can fall flat.

Try presenting the HIPPO with a solution that was derived from the “Opportunity Solution Tree.”

For example, communicate “This is what we’re learning. What would you add?” and remind stakeholders, “Remember we started with this outcome in mind.”

The “Opportunity Solution Tree” helps them to focus on outcomes and not outputs.

Mind the Product takeaways

From educational seminars to a snowball fight, Mind the Product 2019 was an overall success. I have walked away feeling motivated to challenge how I think about and approach product management.

Being the product manager means forcing your ego to take a backseat so that you can learn to let go. With so much uncertainty, it’s impossible to predict everything. But what we can do is listen; to our team, to our colleagues, and most importantly, to our customers. Listening is the key to a purposeful product, and the key to a successful career as a product manager.