When I went to school, there weren’t any classes on product management. The closest I could get to practicing PMing at school was to partner on group computer science projects with people who would let me scope and organize the work.
There was one activity though that has really helped me in my Product Management career — Debate!
Debate is a great extracurricular for anyone interested in product management. And if you love debate, you might consider becoming a PM.
My experience is with Lincoln-Douglas and Parliamentary debate styles, but I’ve also met PMs who did other Speech events. This might just be showing my old rivalries, but I’m not sure that Policy debate is as helpful for product management.
Here are some of the ways that debate can prepare you to be a product manager.
Thinking about value premises
In Lincoln-Douglas (or LD) debate, each side has a value premise like Equality, Liberty or Justice, and the first thing you need to do as a debater is to figure out if your opponent has the same value premise as you. If you’ve got the same value premise, you can move on to explaining how your side fulfills it better, but if you’re talking about different values you need to prove that your value is more important.
In product management, thinking about values shows up a lot as you work with different people who might have different goals. Often I’ll start with a goal of Learning while the designer starts with a goal of Quality and we’ll need to discuss those goals before we can get anywhere with the actual design.
Even knowing how important this is, I still sometimes end up in discussions where we’ve accidentally gotten caught up in a disagreement because we jumped right in. When I see that happening I back up and ask about goals. It’s amazingly effective.
Seeing both sides
When you do high school and college debate, you don’t get to always debate the side you agree with. About half the time you’ll need to represent the side you disagree with and still do your best to make a convincing case to win the round.
Practicing debating both sides of a case teaches you to start seeing issues a little differently. It’s easier to understand how smart people can disagree, and helps you see the merit in other positions.
As a product manager, you often have to represent the person who’s not in the room. Being able to see each person’s priorities and understand their point of view helps you balance all of the sides to help the team come to the best outcome.
Listening + Responding = Problem Solving
The moment when people really get debate is when they start countering their opponent’s points. Debate beginners don’t really listen to what the other team said. Instead they’ll be entirely focused on their own points.
For example if the one team said “Red is the best color because it’s the color of fire, which gives us heat.” A beginner might respond “No, Blue is the best color because it’s the color of water, which we need for life”. They’ve said something new, but it doesn’t really address what the first person said.
To win debates, you need to counter the opposition’s points before you introduce your own. For example you could say, “Red is the color of fire, but that’s a bad thing because fires are destructive.” or “It doesn’t matter which things are red, we should be judging colors based on how people act when exposed to the color, and people are more aggressive when exposed to red, which is bad for society.” In both of those cases I’ve responded to the first person.
Once you learn to listen and respond to people’s points you’ll be amazed at how often people talk past each other. When you get in and really listen to the other person and respond to them, discussions make progress much faster and you can quickly and confidently get to great solutions.
For example, I might tell an engineer that we need a page to load faster. They’ll tell me they can’t load all that data any faster. Rather than repeating myself and insisting, I’ll hear what they’re saying and ask if we can load less data. They’ll make a suggestion that loads less data, and we’ll go with that as the solution.
It’s amazing to me that many of the times that PMs get congratulated for problem solving are times just like that. As a PM you don’t always need to come up with the ideas, you just need to ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers.
Thinking on your feet
In Parliamentary Debate, you alternate being on the Government side and the Opposition side between rounds. When you’re on the Government side you have some time to prepare your case, but when you’re on the Opposition side you don’t know what you’ll be debating about until the Government side starts talking.
During the Government’s first seven minute speech, you’re furiously multi-tasking: listening to all the arguments while simultaneously preparing your own arguments and rebuttals. Once you get up to give your speech, the Government team can get up and ask you questions in the middle. All of this will give you a lot of practice thinking on your feet.
Being comfortable with fast thinking can be really helpful as a PM. If you’re always telling people you’ll get back to them with your thoughts you’ll slow the team down quite a bit. Usually the other people are blocked until you make a decision. When you can respond quickly you’ll help the whole team get on a faster pace.
In addition to answering questions quickly, thinking on your feet is important because many of the places where you can be useful won’t be framed as questions at all. You might be watching a presentation or in a meeting where you hear about someone’s plans. If you think through all the implications quickly, you might realize you should jump in.
Communication & Crystallization
The final speeches of a debate round are where you crystallize the main arguments and explain to the judge why you won. You summarize everything that happened and make it crystal clear that your side was right. While good communication is generally important in debate, the final speeches really bring it out.
As a product manager, I often use what I learned in crystallizing debates to distill a decision down to the most important points. I’ll group them together into pros and cons and pick out the most important ones to highlight. Then I’ll share my list with the team to ground the discussion. This format helps the rest of the team quickly understand the tradeoffs so we can make good decisions together.
Any other PMs out there have experience with debate? Share your thoughts about how debate has helped you in the comments!