Flipping the Switch Between Faith and Skepticism

Before I get to the arm-wrestling movie reference, a back story:

It’s July 2013. I’ve been working full-time for the past 6 months on a new product called GoNoodle. It’s a side-project that grew to increasing priority as we realized our core product had a questionable future. GoNoodle is slated for release in a month. I’ve begun circulating it internally and have received some hard questions and bewilderment from some of our own staff, who don’t fully understand why we’re building something new instead of doubling down on the legacy product.

GoNoodle is a gamble: our early user research showed promise, but there’s still a huge chance that it fails to find an audience. I wake up every day at one extreme: either deeply optimistic or deeply terrified. I swing wildly between faith in our product vision and total skepticism about all the decisions we’re making.

Since becoming a product leader and coach, I’ve shared stories from this time in my career many times. These stories are all about illustrating one of my main takeaways from 10 years in product: product management is a constant act of switching between faith and skepticism, and that’s precisely why it’s such a challenging job. Product managers have to learn how to operate in between two extremes.

The Myth of Certainty

The truth is that you’re never going to be 100% certain about a product idea. There’s too much detail and minutia in a major product launch to be 100% confident about it. Honestly, if you feel you know EVERYTHING and have zero skepticism about your product’s chances — and I hate to tell you this — you might be a harmless sociopath, or some kind of deity.

For the rest of us mortal humans, good product management is about finding the sweet spot where faith and skepticism play balancing roles. Faith ensures you have just enough conviction to keep going, and to drive enthusiastic collaboration with others. Skepticism keeps you hungry for all the evidence you can find, and drives you to de-risk your decisions by checking your ego at the door. And every time you make a product decision, you naturally do so somewhere in balance between these two extremes.

“It’s Like a Switch”

I still can’t believe they let Stallone make a movie about arm wrestling. The 1980s were wild.

In the awesomely terrible movie “Over the Top” (where a truck driving Sly Stallone enters an underground arm-wrestling tournament to win the love of his estranged son), he turns his hat backwards on his head “like a switch” when he needs to go from mild-mannered swole longhaul trucker deadbeat dad to arm-wrestling-for-the-love-of-my-son sweaty bicep monster.

I think about “Over the Top” often for a lot of reasons. (This warrants another post in the “lifestyle” section of this blog.) However, the biggest reason is that I wish I had Stallone’s hat for product work, so that I could seamlessly switch between faith and skepticism at will.

Because there are cases where you need one more than the other:

  • You need faith when communicating internally and externally about your product vision.
  • You need skepticism when planning new work in detail for the team.
  • You need faith when pitching your concept to people.
  • You need skepticism when new ideas arise in user or stakeholder feedback.
  • You need faith when it’s time to make a decision and the evidence isn’t yet clear.
  • You need skepticism when it’s time to make a decision and the evidence isn’t yet available.

For us product people, the switch is most often involuntary. We likely flail between the two based on external forces: one piece of resonant user feedback, a meeting, our impostor syndrome, etc. But with diligent practice — like Stallone cranking out hundreds of bicep curls while driving his big rig into that dark night — we can learn how to find balance and even switch between the two extremes as needed.

How to Balance Faith and Skepticism

Here’s my personal checklist for how PMs can keep faith and skepticism in balance:

1. It’s OK to remember that this is hard.

Cut yourself some slack. And, honestly, your team owes you some grace here too. You’re making macro and micro decisions when you’re surrounded by uncertainty, and you have to do it a dozen times a day, usually under time pressure. You’ll make mistakes, like every other PM. The goal is to minimize the impact of missteps, and average more hits than misses.

2. Research regularly, even when you don’t want to.

Fill your inspiration bank. In the best case, research is well structured and focused on a specific set of questions, but remember that it doesn’t always have to be. Don’t feel like you need a well-defined project to do research. Force yourself to talk to a user or potential customer every day, even if you just recycle a standard question set. Build a database of anecdotes from your target user. Find a tribe of people who can inspire you when you feel out of balance.

3. Go back to your notes.

If you’re following #2, you’re giving your future-self a place to turn when faith wanes, or when you need a reality check. Leave a breadcrumb trail and take great notes. When you feel lost or like you have a surplus of either faith or skepticism, go back and review old research. Unemotionally observe how it relates to your current thinking. Does it connect any “new dots?” Does it clash with your current approach? Does it confirm your efforts, or raise new questions? Examine it like a third party, then get in front of a white board or blank page.

4. Process through creativity.

Product management is storytelling. When I feel lost, I put myself in my customer’s shoes and write…something. The output doesn’t matter — just get creative. I’ve written rambling manifestos outlining a new approach, press releases for future product announcements, landing pages for product variations, fake blog posts from the perpective of fake people describing their use of a fake product. Writing is processing ideas, and the beauty is that it can take so many forms. The form doesn’t matter as much as the processing.

5. Reframe your ideas as bets.

Proudly borrowed from John Cutler, who suggests that you reframe roadmap items as bets. The language of bets frees us to talk about our work within the language of product and uncertainty. We can be unemotional about when we’re making a high risk or a low risk bet, and how much faith or skepticism we are comfortable with before making that bet.

6. Question if research is turning into paralysis.

When you’re at your most skeptical, it’s surprisingly easy to make an over-correction towards researching everything. This can become its own form of paralysis. I’ve been in the position before where I felt like we couldn’t make a single decision without rigorous research first. If you’re following #5 and thinking in bets, it is possible to make decisions on less certainty and more faith. The key is naming the consequences of a wrong decision. Weigh faith vs skepticism — put the potential damage of a bad call against the time it would take to research yourself into a state of “no skeptecism” and then scope the depth of your research from there.

Lastly: Share the Language of Faith and Skepticism

It’s hard enough to manage your own balance between faith and skepticism. But the reality is that most of the challenge comes when collaborating with others. Simply put: not everyone you collaborate with will be on the same wavelength. By recognizing this balancing act in myself, I was better able to talk about it openly with others, including other PMs, team members, and executives.

I’ve found that being able to explain faith versus skepticism helps me drive candid conversations and healthy collaboration, where the team can work together to make the right decisions in balance together.

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