The core asset an organization gains from seniority in the Product Management discipline is experience. Prior knowledge that is ready-to-hand for today’s problems as well as the unforeseen opportunities of tomorrow.
To grow in an organization — you must grow in experience. Most people think this is simply a function of years on the job or a function of how well you are excelling in your present job.
It’s a mindset that betrays us all:
Person: I’m really doing well at my role, I think I’m ready to get promoted.
Organization: The role you’re seeking requires a different mix of skills than the ones you’re using to succeed.
Simply put — you can be successful in a role without developing a breadth of experience. An organization gives raises for successful performance, an organization promotes for experience.
So if years on the job isn’t the end all answer. What is experience and how do we acquire it?
Experience is the acquisition and development of relevant a priori or a posteriori knowledge prior to the moment of need or use combined with the ability to apply it towards an organizational outcome (know-what and know-how).
Here is the good news. Experience does not have to be empirical nor perfect. We can gain good-enough imperfect experience through others.
Here is an example:
You’re headed to a meeting with a client you’ve never seen before. You receive a phone call from a colleague — she shares the receptionist’s name, how to get on his good side. And she shares the three key points the room is looking for in your pitch and how to land them.
You go into the room experienced. Not because you had prior experience but because you were borrowing from the experience of others.
With this as an example we can see there are a variety of means of acquiring experience — some mediums are very good from going from 0 to 1. Others are very good at going from 1 to 10, and otherse still better at going from 10 to 100.
On a per hour basis reading is the most efficient means for going from 0 to 1 across a breadth of topics.
To add some color — imagine yourself as a Senior Product Manager. Your meeting calendar for today is a technical review of a new conversational UI, we’re having a hard time presenting personalized responses within conversation tolerance and a Strategy Review about what steps to take in response to a growing competitor in a niche market.
You’ll be attending both with your Sr. Director and two of your colleagues. One has a Masters of Computer Science, the other a Masters of Business Administration.
Here’s where it gets unfair — given the demands of the role, you’ll be expected to understand the foundations of systems design and the foundations of strategy and to meaningfully contribute regardless of your own background.
Now we can’t possibly have postgraduate degrees in everything. But the role is suited towards polymaths. So how does one become a polymath practically speaking?
This brings me to the first part of my thesis:
We read because it is the most efficient means of acquiring experience.
If you want to grow your professional skills on pace with the needs of the market — read one book a month each year. If you want to outpace market growth — read two books a month each year.
Consider two separate lists. If you’re reading 12 books a year — it should be almost entirely foundations, and if you’re reading more you can mix in the remaining books from list two. (Cut the number on this list in half for denser technical materials that require working out problems along with reading)
List 1: Foundations
These books need to be curated and maintained like deliberate practice. They need to establish your existing skills up to foundational levels (the 12 books a year reading list).
List 2: Super powers
These books are geared towards doubling down on your own professional areas of interest. Additionally on this list you should intentionally seek out areas where you can acquire new knowledge on behalf of the organization.
For both of these areas I need to be clear. This isn’t reading for pleasure. This is deliberate practice. This is a managed and cultivated learning program managed by you.
If you’re like me, you’re probably asking: Who has time for all of this? The answer is you. Your role today, especially as a Product Manager is preparing yourself and the organization for the needs of tomorrow. And again reading is the most efficient way.
Ok ok, I read blogs so I think I’m covered.
No you’re not. Blogs are not organized knowledge and they aren’t a forum to explore any topic in sufficient depth. Keeping up with the daily news in business is not the same as having a foundational understanding of how industries are formed and evolved — or having case studies of other companies facing similar challenges and how they responded.
Just as a sommelier would be pretty horrible if she didn’t study and explore new smells and tastes to continue to expand the universe she has available to her for explaining and understanding wine textures, tastes and smells. We’re similarly poor at our jobs when we rely on superficial headlines and news clippings for our understanding of our domains, disciplines, and competitive industries.
Books are organized thought on a discreet topic that can be stacked and read one by one increasing the concentration or breadth of understanding in a particular domain. A proactive learning plan can be built around them.
Blogs and news are reactive perspectives to shifting topics and rarely organized to explore a topic in sufficient depth. They are appetizers — great for holding a superficial conversation over but not enough to allow the reader to approximate experience in an area.
And this brings me to the second part of my thesis on why we read:
And it is experience which allows us to progress our careers and our organizations.
Principal of Promotions:
Progressions follows experience.
At any point in time promotions can move ahead of experience and experience can trail promotions. The two can be out of sync for sustained periods in time — just as a stock can remain dormant for long periods prior to breakout. It’s the activities conducted in those long periods which make the breakout possible.
It’s the acquisition of experience which allows you to solve problems for our customers in new and novel ways — which is in healthy organizations a precursor to advancing your own career.
I’ve covered a lot of ground here on the context of experience how experience relates to career advancement and how experience relates to reading. I want to bring it home now.
As the world turns. Tomorrow brings a completely new reality not just an extension of today. So we’re constantly bridging the gap between previously acquired experience and new context.
And this is why we read. Because it’s the most effective means of acquiring experience and experience is a necessity to face tomorrow’s opportunities.