People bang-on about product managers needing to be data-driven. But like many things in building products, it’s more nuanced than that.
Being data-driven is simplistic. A machine can make decisions based on data. Algorithms can be made to choose the best path forward based on data. If it’s simple for a machine to do it, where’s your added value?
The truth is that to be a great product manager, you need to be driven by strong instincts more than anything else. The best product managers, the founders of companies, are guided by strong instincts for what customers want. Most of the time when going from 0 to 1 there is no reliable data to go on, you must rely on instincts.
Data is useful for sure, it can help lead to insights, sometimes really powerful ones. But you want to be data-informed, not data-driven. It’s a subtle but important difference.
The mental model
As a PM, you need to build a mental model of your customers, taking all kinds of inputs, from quantitative and qualitative sources. The best product managers tend to have an extraordinary level of empathy for their customers, they can see things the way the customer sees it. Data alone doesn’t allow you to empathise enough to create this kind of rich model.
Relying on data as your primary source is lazy — we have lots of tools to collect and organise data now, it’s doing the work for you. The hard stuff is qualitative and experience related. You need to talk to customers, see their world, see their needs. Read about the problem space, talk to experts, see what other solutions exist, look at adjacent spaces. It’s total immersion to create that mental model which gives you confidence to make good decisions.
The problem with focusing so much on data is that you tend to focus more on the things which are easily measurable. You end up knowing a lot about the numbers, but not a lot about the why.
Some things are hard to measure, but it’s those things which often lead to breakthrough insights about unmet needs.
But why is data-driven so popular?
Because the big companies talk about it so much.