Where do you learn from?

Giff Constable management

I’ve learned more about being a good product leader from people outside of product than inside. There, I said it.

Maybe this is because there were fewer to learn from back in the day. Nowadays we have amazing people like Gib Biddle, Melissa Perri, Teresa Torres, Tommi Forsstrom, just to name a few among so many I respect and follow.

Still, my biggest mind-expanding moments have been from brilliant people in engineering, design, data science, and other fields. This is not news — interdisciplinary thinking is what made Bell Labs and Sante Fe Institute so amazing.

However, in online communities, I see far more knowledge exchange happening within the disciplines than across them. Designers follow design leaders, PMs follow product leaders, etc.

This is natural, but there are some negative side effects, and not just in missing out on important ideas from different perspectives.

It can lead to some odd sicknesses in our respective fields, where people talk up their own discipline to make it ever-more IMPORTANT.

Example: “It’s product’s job to set the what and why, and design and engineering’s job to think about how.”

Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me. Get over yourself.

As product management has grown as a field, it has pushed into the UX world. Older designers rolled their eyes and thought, “Yeah, you just invented the wheel again [golf clap]. BTW, why do you get to own this now?”

Similarly, as the capital-d Design profession has expanded into service design, “design strategy”, and business model design, business folks have had a similar reaction: “So you’ve finally decided business is important, rather than an irritating distraction from the customer, and now you think you can do it better than the rest of us?”

Yes, I’m being intentionally provocative, but these echo chambers and one-upmanship tussles do no one any good.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post, The Kind of HR I Want, triggered by my huge frustration at bureaucratic rules HR orgs put up. (This is staying on topic, bear with me). When I was interviewed on the CultureLab podcast (as of this writing, the conversation isn’t out yet), the host Aga Bajer asked me why I thought a common-sense approach to HR wasn’t more prevalent. My response:

It’s the tragedy of best intentions.

HR people want to become good at HR. Naturally, they go listen to HR leaders. They try to advance the field and professionalism of HR. None of this is shocking, but as they do this, they come up with solutions which turn to process and rules to handle scaling issues. This is a dangerous tendency. It also has the effect of making HR more important in the organization, at the expense of managers. This probably makes it harder to resist. Who doesn’t like being more important? Being essential!

These best intentions have the effect of making HR more heavy handed. Any other approach becomes unprofessional and impossible. And so you get a world where the Patty McCords (Netflix) and Tony Hsiehs (Zappos, rest in peace), i.e. leaders who can see through and cut through all that nonsense, are the exception not the rule.

Professional echo chambers actually make us weaker not stronger.

I’m a little worried that this effect is being seen in the growth of dev-ops, design-ops and product-ops as a thing unto itself, but more on that next week.

I think we are stronger when we don’t just strive to collaborate and empathize with our colleagues, but we really try to understand their fields.

On a personal note, one of the areas where I want to find new sources of inspiration and increased empathy is Marketing. The uncharitable side of me thinks that marketing has lagged behind the other disciplines: still too much outsourcing to agencies, too much focus and spend on shiny technology tools, and not enough keeping pace with what has been going on in the prod-design-eng side as software has eaten the world. I’m sure this isn’t fair, and I need to find the people in marketing who are pushing the envelope and doing it in such a way that avoids the useless war with product/design over who knows the customer best. (That war for the high moral ground is SUCH an unhealthy waste of time). Yes, I’ve been following April Dunford forever and it’s no wonder — she is and thinks multi-disciplinary!

I think this is why I like Christina Wodtke so much as well — she transcends the boundaries of any particular discipline.

How to expand your learning to other disciplines?

If this post resonates, I have two immediate tips:

  1. Ask people in the other disciplines who they follow and what podcasts they listen to within their field
  2. Explore podcasts that seem to be inherently cross-disciplinary (The Knowledge Project and Invest Like the Best are two I recommend)

This is an opinionated piece for sure, but hopefully not a boring one. I continue to try to push myself in this area, and recommend that everyone trying to grow in their fields also look around and outside. You might find that it does wonders for your learning curve and your rate of professional advancement.