I was a little bit worried that I wouldn't be able to help the kids in fourth grade at my son's elementary school understand what a product manager was. I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm.
I told them the story of the Swiffer. We talked about how everyone can be a product manager if they are willing to ask questions, carefully watch how the world works, come up with ideas, make models, and then test their ideas.
We talked about how product management is really just a set of tools for solving problems. If you have an opinion about how the world should work and you spend the time figuring out how to make things better - you can be a product manager. I drew a picture on the board - the “double loop of innovation” - to help them understand how this process works. We talked about how many of the best products in the world were built using these four key steps.
4 Steps of Double Loop Innovation
First, we go out into the world and observe what’s happening, take notes, and ask lots of questions. From those observations, we start to come up with ideas. The best ideas rise to the top and we build prototypes to test those ideas. The kids were very quick to come up with a better word than prototype - they like the word “model” better. From those models we can quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.
When I stepped back from the board, I realized that I had an amazing product manager with me in the room - their teacher. I asked the teacher, who had been busy grading papers, to look up from her work and take a look at the board. I asked her if she thought she was a product manager. At first, she was a little bit confused. After taking a minute to process it, I could tell that she was on board. She had come to the realization that we use very similar processes every day to solve really hard problems.
I told them that their teachers are the best product managers in the world. They are constantly finding new and better ways to do things. They find things that work with one student and see if there is a way to scale those solutions to as many other students as possible. Some of their solutions work for everyone, and some are built just right for a particular student need.
One of the students raised her hand and asked, “If my teacher is a product manager, then what are her products?” It didn’t take long for a few other students to shout out, “it’s us!” This filled me with emotion. Teachers do remarkable work. They are constantly trying new things and inventing new ways of doing things. Sometimes their solutions work only at an individual level of scale, and sometimes their ideas make it out into the world to impact thousands of students.
Since I visited the school, several of the children have seen me and told me that they're coming up with ideas and testing things out. They talked to me about the "double loop" of innovation. They all have great ideas and are going to be a big part of changing the world.
I love being a product manager at Instructure. The kids asked me what problem I'm trying to solve. I talked to them about the tools we’ve built for schools and then I told them that we're working on tools that help make sure that their parents come home from work happy each day - ready to play with them and teach them new things.
Everyone can be a product manager. You start with a point of view, then you ask questions, observe how things work, come up with ideas, model those ideas, test them, and keep iterating.
Product Manager, Instructure