Soren Kierkegaard handdrawn portrait

An Existential approach to Product Management

It’s amazing how many different disciplines have applications in the world of software development and product delivery. I’ve just finished a book about a philosopher called Kierkegaard, he lived in Denmark in the early part of the 1800’s and is regarded as the first existentialist. I’ve used some of his ideas to create an existential approach to product management

Crucially for me he rejected idealistic thinkers and worked in the practical realm. In my mind this is important, coming from an engineering background the practical application of theoretical thought it close to my heart.

Here are a few concepts he tackled and some ideas on how taking an existentialist approach to product management can help you be a better product manager

1) Either/Or vs And/Both

Kierkegaard wrote a book titled ‘Either/Or’, the core concept being that humans spend their lives wishing they could make And/Both decisions, but are forced to make Either/Or decisions – I wish I could have the cake and eat it, I want to be health and eat pies etc. This causes us to live with regrets and always wish we had made alternative decisions.

For a product manager, there are a number of implications. Firstly, if resources are available then there is an opportunity to make And/Both decisions and add every possible feature to the product with the resulting Homer Car I discussed in a previous post. We therefore need to be conscious of this bias towards And/Both thinking and try to resist it.

Secondly, because resources are generally scarce you must make Either/Or decisions. The result is that we always wonder if a different choice may have been better. Using data driven decisions and then lean startup MVP feature creation allows us to validate our choices as soon as possible and minimise the opportunity for And/Both decisions to take hold. We can never be totally sure we have made right choice, and when so many are subjective it is important to validate and move on.

2) Living in the past

Another area that interested Kierkegaard was our tendency to focus on how the past used to be and try to recreate those moments. He carried out experiments where he revisited places where he had previously had happy experiences and tried to recreate them, but observed that something was always different and it was never quite the same.

As a product manager the lesson here is that every product or situation is different, while there is no reason not to learn from the past we always need to be conscious that no two situations are exactly the same – the user base may be different or have changed, the team could be different etc.

Even within a product delivery or project over time things will change and assumptions and processes should be revalidated. The retrospective is a great time to consider if all your assumptions still hold.

3) Thinking too much

Kierkegaard says humans are great at reasoning to justify not doing something. In his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘, Daniel Kahnemann discusses that when considering options we over emphasis evidence that supports our natural tendency or own hypothesis, ignoring other evidence. Put these two together and you have the perfect recipe for making decisions based on personal bias rather than evidence based thinking. The message here is to make decisions based on the facts, make them quickly and move on – procrastination could the the recipe for inaction or And/Both outcomes!

Much of my background reading for this post comes from ‘Life lessons from Kierkegaard‘ by Robert Ferguson.

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