Product Management And Fear – Three Tips For Overcoming Creative Blocks

by nils  - May 29, 2013

A few days ago I said that fear is one of the big problems product managers face, in our creative role of finding new solutions to new problems. Much of the time we’re looking at a blank page that we need to fill with requirements or a datasheet, or a blank screen that we need to put a user interface on, or a blank set of slides that will eventually be used to sell our product. And a blank page is a recipe for fear – fear of failure, fear of not coming up with the right solution, fear of missing something obvious, or just fear that this time the magic isn’t going to happen.

A big part of the literature of creativity is focused on how to overcome fear. In other domains they call it by different names – writer’s block, or stage fright, or creative block. I find many of those techniques are valuable, and some I use every day (like morning pages). But there are also product management-specific techniques that can help. And there are some product management tools that, if they existed, would help overcome fear. Today I’ll start with some of the techniques I use that come from outside the world of product management.

General creativity techniques

  1. My favorite of these is morning pages, from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (highly recommended!). The basic idea is to write three pages every morning, first thing, as fast as you can with no editing and no judging, just pouring out the words, even the words are “I can’t think of anything to write.” More often though, the words will eventually start coalescing around a topic, often the topic about which you are blocked. At least, that’s my experience. Cameron describes morning pages as three pages, handwritten. I typically do my morning pages on an awesome website called – three pages handwritten is about 750 words – which tracks my writing over time, and makes it fairly easy for me to reuse it if I come up with something good (which often happens). The site has a number of “gamification”-like features, like giving you badges for streaks of different lengths. I’ve now added my own challenges, such as attempting to write 1,000 words or more per day on average. I find that my creativity really starts to kick into gear, if it’s going to, between 600-800 words, and if things start rolling, it’s pretty easy to get up to 1,400 words in a sitting.
  2. Related to morning pages is the timeless advice from Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird – “Write sh*tty first drafts.” Or as I like to clean it up a bit – Write crappy first drafts. This is actually not a directive, it’s just a fact that your first drafts will not be what you want them to be, and so you should expect that and not get worried when your first attempt is a piece of crap. What’s amazing is that you can attack that first draft, and turn it into a second draft, and it’s likely to be a lot better, and the draft after that even better. And even if the first draft doesn’t lead directly to a second draft, at least it will help you think through your idea so that you can create another (but less crappy) first draft in a different direction, but with much more knowledge about the landscape of the idea.

    The two techniques above are focused on writing, but you can use them for any creative effort. I often will do something like crappy first drafts for UI concepts. I don’t expect to do a good job of user experience design on my first mockup, but I always learn a lot and at worst I get a sense of what additional things I need to start thinking about in order to make a better experience.

  3. Finally, “use your obvious.” This is a new technique for me, which I got from a great list of nine creativity sparking tips from Marelisa Fabrega (I was turned on to this list by Kate Matsudaira (@katemats) in her excellent Technology Leadership News newsletter). I find it incredibly useful. The basic idea is that what is obvious to us about a particular situation is not necessarily obvious to other people. In fact, that what’s obvious to us is actually our differentiator, to use a very product-management word, it’s why we got the job in the first place. The way I use this is to just write down what’s obvious to me at first. That might be innovative enough, and it’s certainly a good start. To provide value I don’t have to necessarily invent something new – I just need to get my own insight into the world.

Coming up – PM-specific creativity unblockers

I will continue this series tomorrow with some more product management-specific techniques for overcoming fear and creative blocks. Let me know in the comments how you handle creative challenges in your work, whether it’s coming up with new product ideas, or designing UIs, or writing marketing material. 


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Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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