Occasionally I interview someone who is wonderful and brilliant, but they’re “just not a product manager”. At first I went with my spidey-sense on that feeling, but soon realized that my inarticulate feeling could accidentally just reflect bias towards people who don’t look like PMs I’ve met. I want to hire the best PMs without unfair biases, so it was very important to me to move from a subjective feeling to objective criteria. I reflected on what I meant by “just not a product manager”, and realized that what I was really picking up on was lack of a product mindset.
What is product mindset?
Product mindset is a habitual approach where you start from problems, goals, and people’s needs. It’s always asking yourself “what problem are we trying to solve” and “what problem should we solve”. People with a product mindset notice problems everywhere, and they connect those problems to bigger goals to explain why those problems matter. They consistently think about what their goals should be and prioritize based on those goals.
Product mindset is really important for product managers because PMs spend their days making lots of little decisions. If your mind doesn’t automatically remind you to figure out your goals, you’ll make bad decisions. If you’re not thinking deeply about which problems to solve, you’ll set bad goals.
What is NOT product mindset?
When candidates lack a product mindset, I usually see one of two alternatives: project manager thinking or enthusiast thinking. Neither of these are bad mindsets, it’s just that they’re not a good match for the product manager role.
Project manager thinking is execution focused. People with this mindset expect someone else to decide what problem to go after and set the high level goals, and then they’ll figure out how to deliver as well as possible.
Enthusiast thinking is solution focused. People with this mindset get very excited about a solution or technology and want to get it out to the world, but they haven’t thought about what problem it solves, or if that problem is really important.
How can you test for product mindset in an interview?
Product mindset can be tested directly in product design questions, and also can be detected in asking about their past experiences.
In product design questions, you can either prompt the candidate to think about goals, or see if they come up with goals unprompted. If the candidate asks you what the goals are, spin it around on them and ask them what they think the goals should be. If a candidate is resistant to setting their own goals or has a lot of difficulty, that’s a sign they don’t have a product mindset.
Once the candidate starts coming up with actual solution ideas, you can see if those solutions tie back to the goals. When you ask them to prioritize, do they pick the things that most helps with the goals? If they get drawn to the sparkly idea and can’t articulate why it’s better than the impactful ones, that’s a sign they don’t have a product mindset.
When you ask about their past projects, you can also learn about their mindset by asking how the project got started and why they made various decisions. If they helped shape the goals (not just picking numeric targets or specific measurements, but actually deciding which problems to go after) and made decisions to support those goals, that’s a good sign for product mindest. If they’ve only ever picked obvious goals, or if their reasons were “I wanted to try this new technology”, they might not have a product mindset.
A note about prompting/guiding: when I’m testing candidates for potential (eg. for the intern or associate product manager programs), I will often prompt them and explicitly ask them to think about goals. If they pick up the prompt and quickly get on track I consider that a good sign for product mindset — they might not automatically think in terms of goals yet but they can build the habit on the job. For experienced candidates I want to see that they already have the automatic habit, so if I need to prompt the only good answer is “oh yes I forgot to say that out loud…”.
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