Do You Want To Be a Badass Product Manager?

by nils  - July 29, 2015

My last post was about a basic product management framework. (Find and validate a market problem, create a solution, take it to market.) Someone said, “OK, that’s fine, but how do you actually do those things?” I will be creating a series of posts that to help you figure out “How am I doing?” in these three areas. I’m using Kathy Sierra’s “badass” ideas as the organizing structure, as you’ll see when I get those posted. In the meantime, I thought I would talk a bit about the “badass” concept itself.

When people ask about “books on how to be a good product manager” I always recommend Badass by Kathy Sierra. Or indeed, anything by Kathy Sierra, including her old blog “Creating Passionate Users.” (CPU is inactive now, but the old posts are still as compelling as ever).

First, the idea is not to get your users to be badass at your product. It’s to get them to be badass at their thing, using your product. People get excited about their thing, not about your product except insofar as it makes them better at their thing.

But there’s a process to becoming badass at a thing, whatever it is. This is so important to product managers because your product can help them get badass – or it can get in their way. Most very successful products do the former!

For an introduction, I recommend watching Kathy’s “Creating The Minimum Badass User talk from the 2013 Business of Software conference. Then, go buy the book. The video is one of the best spent hours you’ll have as a PM, in my opinion. The book is concrete guidance for how to make it happen with your product.

Some people have told me they found the book difficult to follow. I think watching the video helps a lot. There’s so much new (or at least different) thinking that’s coming together, you might need to hit it multiple times. But here’s my super-simplified version of the badass approach.

  • There is a path to mastery and you should tell your user this and help them understand it. That is, they’re not going to be badass overnight, but it does happen, and if you follow the path, you can get there.
  • You should give lots of good examples of mastery of the thing, and make sure bad examples are shown in a way that the lizard brain can’t interpret as good. Bad examples are terrible for learning, because our dumb brains don’t know the difference between good examples and bad examples.
  • The path to mastery has inevitable obstacles, that everyone encounters. You should warn your users in advance that they’ll hit these roadblocks, so they don’t feel they are more stupid than other people. Then help them out of the jam if you can.
  • Give your users intermediate “I Rule!” moments on the path to keep going. These can take lots of forms: A new skill, a deeper understanding of their domain, a challenge met and overcome.
  • The concepts of “flow” and “deliberate practice” are critical. Make sure at any given time that the user is challenged, but not too challenged.
  • The more you can treat your user as a human (i.e., using conversational language, using visuals, chunking information, plus many more) the better you will be at getting past the brain’s crap filter. See Kathy’s “Crash Course In Learning Theory” for a quick overview of these concepts.

Kathy uses a number of metaphors to help you think about these ideas, including:

  • Snowboarding (which sucks on Day 1, but is better on Day 2). The good examples are all around you on the slopes, typically. And the bad examples are clearly bad – people falling on their butts!
  • Photography (long path to mastery, but you can make progress on intermediate skills, and if you keep doing this, you’ll keep getting better).

I’m so interested in this framework because not only do I make products, but I want to help you become badass product managers. So I have to use these ideas.


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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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