Product Managers Need To Learn How To Fail

Failure is not the end, but rather a unique learning experience…
Failure is not the end, but rather a unique learning experience…

How do you feel about failing at something? I’m willing to bet that you are just like the rest of us in that you HATE to fail. It turns out that if indeed this is the way that you feel, then perhaps you’ve been missing out on some great learning opportunities. Maybe I should explain myself…

Your Brain On Failure

Failure should probably be a part of the product development definition. Something that most of us have never spent any time thinking about is just exactly how we react to failure when it hits us. More importantly, how our brains react to failure when it shows up. Jonah Lehrer has been looking into this and has made some interesting discoveries.

It turns out that when we fail, two very important things go on inside of our heads. The first is that something called error-related negativity (ERN) which is triggered immediately after we realize that something that we’ve done has failed. We’re talking about a signal that shows up 50 milliseconds after the realization that we’ve failed and there’s not a darn thing that you can do about it – it’s pretty much involuntary.

However, that’s not all. There is another signal that our brain gets about 100-500 milliseconds after we realize that we’ve failed. This signal is called the error positivity (Pe) . We have some control over this signal: it happens when we start to pay attention to our failure and we spend time thinking about the results that have been produced.

The really smart scientists who study such things tell us that product managers who are able to have a large initial ERN signal and a more constant Pe signal are the ones who are best able to learn from failures.

How To Use Failures To Become Better

All of this brain signal stuff is good to know, but what’s a product manager to do with this new knowledge? It turns out that it all relates to what kind of person you are.

Scientists believe that the world of product managers is divided into two groups: those of us with fixed mindsets and those of us with growth mindsets. A fixed mindset means that we think that we are as good as we’re going to get at this product management thing. Those of us with growth mindsets believe that we can become better product managers.

Knowing about those brain signals, the scientists have done some studies. What they’ve found is that product managers with a growth mindset were generating a much larger Pe signal and were therefore able to learn more from the failures that they had.

I can almost hear what you are saying right now: great, how can I get this “growth mindset”? It turns out that it might be easier to do than you might think.

Product managers who surround themselves with people who are always telling them how smart they are seem to fall into the fixed mindset camp. However, those of us who surround ourselves with people who complement us on our individual efforts fall into the growth mindset camp. Being recognized for individual accomplishments seems to make a product manager want to understand why they’ve failed and to do better the next time around.

What All Of This Means For You

Every product manager will fail sometime. There’s nothing that we can do about this: it could be a product launch that goes flat, a successful product that runs into a wall, or a competitor that shows up and takes our market away from us. The end result is the same: we’ve failed. You might not be willing to put this kind of experience on your product manager resume, but if you’ve been a product manager for any length of time it’s happened to you.

What’s important is how we handle this failure. Studies have shown that we have two reactions to failure: the immediate reaction and the one that follows it. Product managers who are going to be the most successful have a stronger response when they detect a failure and they then take the time to learn from their failure.

Taking the time to treat each failure as a unique learning experience is what allows some product managers to get ahead. If they’ve taken the time to surround themselves with people who praise them for their efforts, then they’ll be able to turn every failure into a way to become better. Since we know that we’re going to fail, this sure seems like a good thing to do! Now that’s something that you can add to your product manager job description.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think that the first thing that a product manager should do after discovering that they failed is?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Just imagine if you were the product manager who was in charge of one of the world’s simplest products: a pen. How successful could you be in this era of fancy smartphones and high-tech tablets? I would have been willing to say that your pen product had reached the end of its product life; however, the product managers over at Parker Pen have proven me wrong…

5 thoughts on “Product Managers Need To Learn How To Fail”

  1. Its important to discuss this topic ‘Failure’ & thanks for bringing this up. I would say what fails is ideas, or attempts not individuals – that’s the first mindset I bring in on failure, Oh! my idea failed. It helps in retaining confidence & fuels you up for more giving in more & better attempts.


    • Abhay: I fully agree with you! I think that how the rest of a product manager’s department / company reacts to a failure has a lot to do with how a product manager will feel about it: will you try to hide / minimize it or will you learn from it?

  2. Hah! Edison is the most courageous person to declare when 2,000 experiments failed in his process of inventing the Electric Bulb. He quipped that it is not failures, but of knowing how 2,000 ways things do not work!

    When I was in Singapore’s most talked about R&D body in early 1990s, one of the person questioned how to do you know a product succeeded? One of my out-spoken colleague entertained the audience with his answer: “If the boss (or super boss) believes it is success then it is a success!”

    So, beware of failures, failures even if the product manager is not responsible, can simply cost his job!

    • Saradhi: you bring up a very good point. Here’s a question for you: if you managed a product that failed, but you learned a lot from the experience and you ended up getting fired, do you think that you would be more valuable to the next company that hired you?

      • Dear Dr Jim, you are perfectly correct, and I agree with you. That’s the very reason Project Management Institute’s PMBOK insists that concluding projects with ‘lessons learned’ is highly important.
        On a positive note, want to ensure to the readers that it is possible to build robust systems and products that deliver value, provided one applies systematic modelling and development methodologies. I shared some of such lessons in a paper ‘From Practice to Theory: A Development Strategy Worth Looking At,’ ACM-SEN v18 n3, Jul, 1993. I quote a few sentences from the abstract: “… we can face the challenge of constructing a useful system or product…” and attempts to codify the methodology that helped in creating successful systems.
        Finally, Dr Jim I like your discussions and attempts to bring maturity of understanding among the community.


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