There are no Silver Bullets — An Interview about Product Management, Design Thinking and Growth

This interview was originally published February, 17th 2020 by Alexander Bock on LinkedIn under the title How to keep an open mind: There are no silver bullets and “it depends”​ — Lisa Mo Wagner’s perceptive view.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

today’s interview we talk to Lisa Mo Wagner. As a Hidden Champion she provides amazing insights on product management, combining various fields for her exceptional work and perspective: a master design thinker with a growth hacker mindset, digital nomad and facilitator. She writes deeply inspiring articles combining her fields of expertise with a personal view and thus creating new perspectives.

Hi Lisa, hope you are doing fine. We have a little tradition on the way Hidden Champions like you introduce here, so here is my question for you: if you would be a city or a landscape, which one and why?

Hi Alex, thanks for having me! This is a tough question, maybe the sea, ever-changing. It can be fun and relaxing when you spend a day at the beach, but it can also be stormy and wild. And it’s full of plastic? I just like the sea in any kind of weather it shows its beauty in its own way. It never stops moving and changing and I would see it as unapologetic. I am not so much anymore since living in Canada.

I was inspired by your post and article about how you plan 2020, in which you outlined the process. I did this myself and thought about sharing, but it was too personal for me. How do you find the strength to open up in such a remarkable way? And is there some kind of general idea, philosophy behind it?

It has definitely been a process for me. When I wrote my very first article I didn’t think anyone would be interested. A few people liked it. Every time I published a new post I was anxious to see if people actually read it and found it useful. I fairly quickly learned that any time I added a more personal note, like an anecdote, readers were more engaged. This gave me the confidence to share more personal details.

When I read other people’s posts I usually hold it in high regard if someone shares their feelings, it shows their human side and I feel a deeper connection.

When writing my year in review for 2019 I was reflecting on a lot of things that weren’t great. It was a year of loss. The words were just flowing onto the page and by the end, I had written something extremely personal and I was quite hesitant to publish, but I did it nonetheless. The response was overwhelming, many people I knew as well as new ones reached out and said it was very touching and it helped them in one way or another.

So when I was writing about my goals, I felt more comfortable to share. I did set three goals and only shared one though, so there are boundaries left. It’s not really a philosophy, I’d call it making a human connection.

You are a design thinker as you are a product manager — to name two hats you are wearing. How has your insights on Design Sprints and being a facilitator changed the way you work as a product manager?

This is really hard to answer because I’ve had facilitator training long before I became a product manager when I was working in customer care. Both these things really set me up for success I believe.

Facilitation is one form of communication that is indubitably one of the core “soft skills” PMs need. It helps in so many ways, one very simple one is keeping the team you work with happy in meetings, they have a purpose, they are moderated, and on point.

Design Thinking is a powerful framework and tool to put your customer front and center. The Design Sprint is an incredibly helpful way to actually use it and to foster collaboration across all kinds of roles. The names tend to be a little misleading in the sense that we associate them with design as a role. But it really is a mindset and a recipe to utilize it.

After running Design Sprints and all kinds of workshops I feel like I have a deeper understanding of what motivates the humans around me and an ability to align that to find the right problem and one solution to it, test it, maybe build some version of it and create products people love in the long run. Especially Design Sprints are not a silver bullet and there is much more to product management, but they help me to take a peek into the future if you will.

As a marketer in the digital space “growth” and a bunch of techniques that were summarized by the terms “growth hacking” and “performance marketing” are overwhelming topics for me. This is all about driving traffic and optimizing conversion rates. One of your focuses is growth, too. How is this from a product perspective? And do you consider yourself a growth hacker?

As a PM I focus more on product-led growth than marketing-led growth, I don’t run performance campaigns, but I will work very closely with product marketing. We both need to understand our customers and there are a lot of intersections.

I actually just sat down with our product marketer and we created a value proposition and landing page concept for a new product, in this case. We are a product company, so this comes quite naturally. In other organizations it was different.

I really like the ideas of growth hacking, every product manager should have an experimentation mindset and be curious. You should pursue growth within your product, your marketing can be great, but if your product doesn’t deliver, you will lose the customers. Every PM should be a “growth hacker” to a degree if they do their job right, in my opinion. Not every growth hacker has to be a product manager though.

Are there specific techniques and methods you use to drive growth, maybe your top 3 approaches?

I have done a lot of A/B testing, which is a very simple way to experiment which is also the reason you need to make sure you know why you’re doing it, what you’re looking for. And if you will reach significance. You have to know some basic statistics for that!

Other than that I like the idea to create experiments: Hypothesis, steps, how long will it run, how are we measuring success. Done. And that can really be anything. I recommend to check out the books “Hacking Growth” and “Escaping the Build Trap” for more on experimentation.

In your article There’s No “I” in Product Manager — Why Ego Gets in the Way you talk about how a strong Ego can get in your way. As well you are aware of all the biases that are surrounding our Egos. Maybe you can explain your perspective and why it is important for business to be aware of our Egos and biases?

I am not sure who it was, but someone made a lot of product managers believe they were the CEO of the product. I have seen my fair share of “dictator PMs” — that’s what you usually get when someone believes they are a Mini-CEO. It is just not helpful. You will miss all the best opportunities.

To quote myself from that article:

“Your team has an amount of experience and expertise that you cannot have on your own. Tap into that, you’d be crazy not to.”

I definitely don’t know all the biases, there are 175 of them and I mean, they are called unconscious for a reason. I do try to be aware of them as to not miss out on stuff. Our brain is made to make it easy to work through all the data we throw at it, so it is normal to have biases.

The number one reason why this is important for a business is that we offer products to a diverse groups of people no matter what we call our segments and we might just miss out on opportunities and make less money or burn money by investing in the wrong thing. It is that impactful.

Coming back to product management: What in your eyes makes a good product manager? Given your expertise on this what are the 3–4 key characteristics someone needs to develop?

All the frameworks and tools can be learned rather easily. What makes a product manager really great are these soft skills.

  • Be humble — You’re most likely not a genius, see that you need your team and lift them up.
  • Listen actively — It is not easy, but once you get really good at listening, you will become an excellent leader.
  • Lead with empathy — Lead your team by influencing them and always stay empathetic with them, put yourself in their shows and listen (s.a.).
  • Empower your team — Give direction and let your team come up with ideas on how to reach goals, you might be surprised what happens when you do.
  • Get started — Make those decisions and be ready to fail and learn and then try again.

All of these have some sort of overlap or even require each other, so one of them might not be enough. That being said, you don’t need to be perfect at all of them all the time. We are all just human, so cut yourself some slack, too.

And turned the other way: what is good product management? So for the founders and entrepreneurs but as well for others: how to check if my product management is on a good track?

This one I will answer with a product manager’s favourite answer: It depends.

It depends on the maturity of the organization, the set up of it, the culture.

Personally, I believe the best setup for a company is to be product-led. If your PMs have those mentioned soft skills and they experiment and learn from their failures, you’re on a pretty good track.

You are sharing a lot of your knowledge, which seems to be inspired by a variety of resources. Is there a routine to that? Podcasts you listen to, articles you read? What are your top 3 resources for staying informed about the latest developments?

Maybe not a routine per se, but I do love to learn new things and pick the best bits and pieces out of all those frameworks and tools and ideas.

I have two learning tracks at the moment, a uni program I am doing on the side in Forensic Engineering and then general product management and adjacent disciplines.

At the moment, I dedicate my mornings to the latter, I listen to a podcast in the morning while I get ready, I read on Medium or Newsletter on the first leg of my commute and then read my book on the second, longer part. I also like to go to meetups (if they’re not too far away, Berlin is quite big), and even started my own Women in Product Berlin group.

EDIT: Due to Corona, there are lots of opportunities for online meetups which is amazing.

How is your view on developments like New Work, remote work and virtual collaboration? Do you use this in your everyday business life? Plays it an important role, e.g. as an enabler, or just a new fancy thing on the side?

Honestly, I love it. I have worked with remote teams since I started working and I am beyond thrilled that there are so many cool tools out there now that really help with remote collaboration like Mural or Funretro, for example.

There are two things that I have found extremely helpful: Everyone turns on their camera and you should plan for some time to just be silly and joke around or talk about animal fun facts or whatever floats your boat.

Despite the fact that I have just always been in situations where remote work happened, I have also sat in corporate conference calls, so the so called “New Work” is very much appreciated! And it makes sense for the companies, they have access to a lot more talent to hire and their employee retention should get better. Personally, I do like being at an office, I would consider myself quite social, but it does not necessarily have to be my team. I am a little proud to say that I have helped teams come together and get better as a team when we were remote.

Do you consider yourself a Digital Nomad? And how important is travelling and exploring new places and meeting new people?

I think so. I was freelancing for a while last year and went to conferences in Toronto and Amsterdam and just kept working remotely. I love seeing new places and meeting new people or just hanging out with the friends I made in various cities when visiting again. It’s the best way to keep an open mind in my opinion!

I couldn’t agree more with the last sentence! It is one of the reasons why I became a Digital Nomad. Thank you very much for this conversation, Lisa. It was a pleasure and a lot of great insights, not only into the world of product managers.

Again, thanks so much for having me, these were some very thoughtful and well-crafted questions, I appreciate that!

Thanks everyone for reading! I hope it was as inspiring for me as Lisa’s insights were for me. If you like to connect or follow Lisa here on LinkedIn just click. Also have two eyes on her Medium account where she publishes articles.

Best, Digital Nomad Alex

Product strategist, decision facilitator, team enabler, problem solver, design sprinter, agile enthusiast, intersectional feminist.

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