New Knowledge is in the Doing
Everyone knows the feeling of Imposter Syndrome, but sometimes as a leader you also deal with just being an Imposter; your team will ask you for guidance on something that you have never actually done yourself. Obviously as the number of degrees between an org leader and individual contributors grows, the less likely the leader has a handle on the day-to-day work, but many execs (including me), rely on their past experience to bridge that gap and provide useful direction; but there are instances where you either have no experience to call on or it’s so legacy that the context no longer applies. For example, whenever a new hiring manager asks me about talent management (sourcing, selling, closing, onboarding, coaching) I feel like I can share timeless insights…but if a PM asks me the best way to organize a backlog that cuts across 7 different tools to collect customer input, it dawns on me that I haven’t even used 6 of them. What is a product leader to do?
While texting with a friend (who is building a company and doing 0 → 1 product work) I lamented this situation where you end up either providing non-relevant advice to folks or just end up in “I don’t know…but let me see if I can connect you with someone who might be able to help”. We somehow started talking about ending up in a danger zone where you’re basically a consultant pitching frameworks without any context on the company / product / team…and he had an amazing insight; you have to, from time to time, get back to doing work (vs just directing work) to keep your perspectives fresh. He said: “new knowledge is in the doing”. It was why he had actually gone back to his startup roots and was enjoying building a new product from scratch. His point was that just because you’re in a leadership role doesn’t mean you can never go back and climb that ladder again with a new set of learnings.
“New Knowledge…is in the Doing”
So what does this mean for product leaders who might be feeling out of touch? A few thoughts that I’m still mulling over myself:
new product discovery
opportunities to jam
synthesized learning rituals
 New Product Discovery
Even if you’re managing a mature product with a lot of “run the business” type R&D effort (customer love, tech debt, etc) you will have opportunities to explore new products that complement your core offering OR you can explore the edges of your product through adjacencies, partners, etc. Since product-market fit is fleeting, you’ll always have to once again find fit as it drifts - this type of product discovery work is a chance to flex in this direction without encroaching on the charter of your existing teams.
 Opportunities to Jam
Every company has (or should have) time allotted to do pure ideation work - a forum where you can check your existing constraints at the door and think through new solution paths to existing problems. This could look like a design sprint, and engineering hackathon, etc - I’ve fallen into the trap before of using these time periods to actually deal with the backlog of management tasks, but it’s a great (and under-utilized) mechanism for product leaders to revisit their IC prime.
 Synthesized Learning Rituals
Your org should be synthesizing and sharing learnings on a regular basis - this can look like like a product release retro, a customer advisory board, a user research call, etc. Too often leaders think their job is to just ensure the ritual is happening vs actually carving out time to not only consume the output but actually offer feedback to change outcomes. As in, don’t just complain that there are too many meetings to join a user research call, ask your team to put together a “best of “ compilation, make time to listen to it, and share your takeaways with the team to start a dialogue vs just skimming their summary and feeling out of touch.
As always, I’d also love to hear from readers about their attempts to stay plugged in as they end up more removed from the day-to-day - please chime in via comments👇. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing.
further reading / references
I’ve written before about customer experience loops as a learning mechanism that can be woven into a leadership career ladder
you can read some satirical thoughts in my Savior Syndrome essay on what happens when a leader doesn’t acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers
childish drawing / interpretation