It’s like riding a bicycle…

For most adults, riding a bicycle is second nature, but for a first-timer it can be intimidating. For many of us, we may recall in detail how, where, when and who taught us to ride. 

Product Management is a lot like riding a bicycle.  

Learning to Ride – in my neighborhood there were lots of families, and kids and bicycles of all types. Before I learned how to ride a bike, I watched my older sister and others riding around the neighborhood. I often thought, “that’s looks pretty easy, I’m sure I could do that.” What I didn’t realize was preparation, practice and experience had to be built at each step.

Product management can be the same. Before I moved into product management, I took an inventory of my sales engineering experience, technical and business skills and thought I was prepared. 

In all honesty, I wasn’t ready to ride. I knew what product management was, or at least I thought I did. Luckily, I had a mentor and leader who was experienced in product management. He had practiced and ridden a lot of miles and could help me prepare and practice for the product management ride.

Preparing to Ride – at my house, training wheels weren’t an option. My Dad said the best way to learn how to ride was to jump on and try. However, before I did, he taught me the basics of steering, balance, maneuvering, how to properly brake and general safety.

Together we went to a parking lot where he walked beside me as I anxiously tried to master the “peddling and steering thing.” Occasionally, he would correct my steering or balance. While he was walking, he could see what I couldn’t and helped me make corrections during and after the practice sessions. As I gained confidence, my Dad would occasionally let go. While insecure steering and balance were tested, I knew no one was holding on, but I felt confident that he was there in case I started to fall. 

Often, I hear of new product managers that have limited time to transition (practice) in their role and are immediately asked to steer and balance. While they may not be sure about where they are headed they need the reassurance that another peer or leader is close by. Like my Dad, leaders have to walk beside all contributors (new or experienced), watching and making suggestions and corrections along the way.  

Practicing Each Day – prepared me for longer rides. With the basic experience logged, I practiced starting, stopping, safety, and began riding in small groups with experienced riders. With road time logged, I began to feel more comfortable with the basics and could venture out on my own.

Similarly, when product management practices daily, they gain confidence and begin to manuever better with stakeholders and executives. Product managers and teams should look for areas to practice product management improvements as often as possible. Find an area that’s a challenge and create a plan and start to practice. 

As an example, if you or the team struggles with how to “discover market problems,” take time each week to identify, address, document and practice an area you want to improve. I’ve done this several times over lunch, small group discussions, team meetings or one-on-one. Each time, I’ve learned and contributed something new that could be applied and practiced.      

On My Own – no matter how long you’ve ridden a bike or been in product management, there are times when you need to ride alone and times when you need the support and experience of others. If you are a single product manager in your organization, look for an internal mentor. If there are none with product management experience, find a product management association, or group. Alternatively, you can search and connect with others via Twitter or LinkedIn groups. 

As you prepare, practice and experience product management, remember that like bikes, there are many types and styles of product management roles. Take the opportunity to ride a few before settling in. When you find a role that fits you, jump on, set a course, begin peddling and enjoy the ride.

If you like the post, please share it with others and comments are always welcome. If you’d like to connect, I can be reached on Twitter at jim_holland or drop me an email at jholland[at]missioncreekpartners[dot]com.

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  • Steve Johnson  On October 18, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    And, like riding a bicycle, some things that are hard to talk about in theory become vastly easier in the doing. You can’t read how to ride a bicycle; you have to do it. But it’s nice to have a safe environment: you don’t want to learn how to ride on a busy street. Or learn product management on a project with impending disaster.

    A lot of it is common sense, but alas, “common sense is not so common,” as Voltaire put it.

    The focus of product management isn’t “just do it;” it’s “just do it right, so we don’t have to do it over and over again.”

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