High Agency: Crucial Product Management Skill 4/20
If at first you don’t succeed, …
This post is part of a series of short articles about the 20 most crucial product management skills.
What it means
High Agency is a personality trait that means not getting discouraged by adversities and obstacles. It means determination and resourcefulness and finding a way to achieve your objectives, even in the face of setbacks:
Why it is an important skill
High Agency important because one of the key objectives of product management is “getting things done”. Great product managers excel at ensuring their own personal as well as their team’s effectiveness. Getting things done requires believing that the obstacles can be overcome, and finding ways around everything that stands in the way. This resourcefulness and ability to identify creative solutions and workarounds enables High Agency product managers to unblock the team and move along where others would get stuck.
Persevering even in the face of obstacles and setbacks is particularly important due to the fundamental uncertainty inherent in product development. Even the best product managers will regularly see their ideas fail and their hypotheses invalidated. Overcoming these “failures” and seeing them as opportunities to grow and improve requires resilience and a growth mindset, both of which go hand in hand with High Agency.
Lastly, the critical product management skill of ownership can only fully be brought to bear with High Agency: if you feel ownership for product and team but feel like you can’t do anything about it because of the hand you’ve been dealt, then that ownership isn’t really worth much.
What great looks like
Product managers with High Agency hardly say “that won’t work”, they ask “how might we make that work?” They see failures and obstacles as opportunities, not as threats. They thrive in environments of uncertainty and ambiguousness.
High Agency product managers are also resourceful: in an almost MacGyver-esque way, they can achieve results with very few resources at their disposal. High Agency product managers don’t complain about lack of engineering or design capacity, about missing or ineffective processes and tools, or about stakeholders — they work with the constraints they face instead of butting up against them.
High Agency product managers can thrive in many different environments — in resource-strapped, “default dead” startups where the High Agency product manager finds scrappy ways to run product discovery processes and validate hypotheses, but also in large enterprises, where the High Agency product manager skillfully navigates around corporate bureaucracy and inertia to make sure the team delivers the maximum possible value to customers.
How to improve your Agency
At the heart of High Agency is a mindset of “possibility” — believing that fundamentally, you should be able to find a way to realize your objectives. One way to foster that mindset is by practicing positive thinking and positive language.
Positive thinking means visualizing positive outcomes you aim to achieve and telling yourself that they can be achieved (optimistic self-talk). It might sound silly, but you are trying to establish self-fulfilling prophecies, where you infuse yourself with the belief that you can do something in order to not get prevented from doing it by the obstacles you might face.
Positive language is related, it is about changing how you talk about yourself and why you are doing what you are doing:
An important aspect of practicing High Agency is giving yourself the opportunity to find ways around obstacles and failures. If you are not currently very high in Agency, you might not even realize obstacles that you could have tried circumventing, because you are so used to seeing them as insurmountable. It’s therefore a good idea to regularly schedule some time to reflect, identify obstacles that you persisted as insurmountable, and ideate ways around them.
Another, more deliberate approach is to change the framing. Peter Thiel asks: ”how can you achieve your 10 year plan in the next 6 months?“ This framing might sound ridiculously overambitious at first, but training yourself to think that way can really help your Agency: “Is there a way in which I can make some meaningful progress on this in 10% of the time that I think it should take?“ or “Even if I am right now prevented from realizing the optimal solution, can I unlock some value with an alternative approach that takes one tenth the effort?”
Regularly asking yourself questions with this framing can help identify opportunities for showing higher Agency.
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