The Endogenous Product Manager

Babies are born with exogenous attention.  This means that the external world dictates what they pay attention to.  A baby could be playing with the best toy ever, but when another toy drops next to them, their attention uncontrollably shifts to the new shiny object. In  The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik says that babies can “become captivated by interesting things that they don’t really like, like an unusually bright light or loud noise. They cry and fuss but seem unable to look away, like adults watching a horror movie.” Gopnik explains that as children grow older, they develop endogenous attention, the ability to control their own attention. They become able to keep their attention on a ball even if a gorilla walks into the room. Or they can choose to give up the beloved ball, if they are persuaded to through bribery, threat, or some other measure.

Adults, of course, have endogenous attention.  But if you examine how some people behave in the workplace, it sometimes appears that they don’t. A pattern I’ve seen in failing product managers is that they don’t control their own roadmap. Instead, they end up on a treadmill of executing other people’s ideas, whether they come from powerful executives, vocal team members, or competitive products in the marketplace. Their product is likely to fail because they are unable to fulfill their responsibility to author the narrative for their product. Without a strong, autonomous filter, the product will likely be poisoned by ideas that don’t reflect complete knowledge of the product network’s tensions that only the product manager can possess. Furthermore, a product manager who doesn’t appear to be driving their own roadmap will lose the respect of their team and the organization. Exogenous product managers are toxic to an organization because, as product managers, their job is to control the attention of their team. If they don’t have control over their own attention, the lack of strong focus is compounded by each team member who must follow their directives.

Successful product managers, in contrast, synthesize inputs from others and the marketplace, but maintain complete control over their focus and their roadmap — they maintain endogenous attention. Endogenous product managers are more likely to succeed because they are in the best position to know what their product needs to succeed.  The product manager is the only one who understands the nuances of the product and how the developers, users, and business relates to it (the product management triangle). Furthermore, through their authoring of the narrative for what the product should and should not evolve to do, they extract the right attention from the company as a whole, improving everyone’s contributions. They pull expertise from employees who would ignore the exogenous product manager.

But while preschoolers naturally develop endogenous attention, in unbounded domains such as product management, the ability must be learned. When a powerful figure in the organization pushes the product in a wrong direction, an endogenous product manager  figures out how to regain control either through persuasion or politics. This form of “managing up” is perhaps one of the most challenging skills of product management to master. Managing up is fighting to control your own attention. Losing the battle is to be reduced to a child.

Maintaining endogenous attention is critical in all challenging jobs. A pilot must know where to focus their attention even if a loud alarm is going off in the cock pit. But in bounded domains, there is a set of rules for where to focus. A pilot is trained where to look for potential danger. But in unbounded domains where there is no rule book, learning how to control your own attention is an endeavor in itself. When your playing field has no clear parameters and the future is ripe with surprises, the allure of responding reactively to happenings in the external world is especially strong.

In striving to improve as product manager and thinker, I’ve found that it’s valuable to periodically ask myself, “How am I behaving like a child?” Kids make cognitive development look easy. Adults, when navigating unbounded domains, must work hard to develop the brain functions they take for granted in other aspects of their life.

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