Are You Using Your Creativity the Right Way?

Product managers need to be creative. But I often see them do it wrong (especially in interviews), or believing that “they don’t have it” so they can’t move up the ladder to their next level. Creativity has many forms, and you only need some of them for your product career. Here are some dos and don’ts.
Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

When I first decided to move into product management, I also decided to interview at Google. I sent my CV through a friend, talked to a recruiter, and started the interview process. I read a lot about what to expect and how to prepare for the interview. Many things I felt would be fine, but there was one thing that I was really afraid of: I saw that many interviewers asked the candidates about their ideas for new products. I felt that the bar for this question was so high that there was no way I could pass it. I mean, they are Google! They have so many great product ideas, how can I possibly impress them? I had to think about something special.

The first interview which was over the phone went fine. They did ask me about product ideas but in a very specific domain, which I believe I answered well. Then I was invited for a full day of on-site interviews. Again, my primary concern was this question about new product ideas. The interview day was scheduled a few weeks in advance, so I had time to prepare. In my case, preparation meant raising ideas to myself and running over them in my head.

Finally, the big day came. The question did pop up in the second interview:
If you were working at Google and had all the company’s resources, which product would you choose to work on?.
Luckily for me, I came prepared with an answer. “I would develop a voice interface for the computer”, I said proudly. 

You have to understand, it was early 2008. I am not sure I have ever seen an iPhone at the time, let alone have worked with one. I felt so innovative with my answer! But then came a follow-up question that I wasn’t ready for: “why?”. I mumbled something like “because I think it’s time, it would be the next big thing”, and couldn’t articulate anything more coherent. The interviewer asked again why I thought it would be a good idea – probably trying to give me another chance to say something smart, but I didn’t have a good answer.

As you can probably guess, I didn’t get the job eventually and accepted an offer from Imperva instead (which turned out to be a company with great product culture and an amazing school for product leadership). It took me a while to understand what I did wrong in approaching this question, and I keep returning to this story as I see candidates making that same mistake today.

An Idea Is Worthless Without a Good Reason Behind It

If you think about my idea itself – a voice interface for the computer – it probably wasn’t such a bad one. In fact, Siri launched only 3 years later, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Apple was already working on it when I was interviewed.

So if Apple thought it was a good idea, why wasn’t it good enough for me to pass the product manager’s interview? Because standalone good ideas are not what people are looking for – both in product interviews and in real product work. It wasn’t the idea that wasn’t good enough, it was my ability to explain it

As a product manager, you will always need to explain why what you are suggesting is the right thing to do (this goes beyond product ideas and into processes, prioritization, and other aspects of the job). If you can’t explain the reasoning behind your idea, it’s usually useless. Of course, if you are the CEO and you have a new idea, you can simply tell everyone to work on it. But even in that case, without proper reasoning, the chances that it will actually succeed are extremely low. Since reasoning is not always easy to provide, especially with ideas that come up based on strong intuition, I often recommend to CPOs to take their CEO’s ideas and try to explain why they are great ideas (even if the CPO doesn’t think it’s true). This often promotes the discussion and helps align the team towards one of the sides – either the CPO ends up getting convinced because of the research that they have conducted, or the CEO understands that there are real issues with it since they are part of this discovery as well.

The best way to explain why a certain idea is good is to build it as a good idea from the get-go. In the methodology that I suggest below, ideas don’t have to come up out of nowhere, so don’t worry if you don’t see yourself as a very creative person. It doesn’t matter, and I’m a live example of it.

Two Types of Creativity

To explain it, you have to understand that I never thought of myself as a creative person. Thinking out of the box and coming up with ideas out of nowhere seemed to be so far away from me. I love boxes. I feel comfortable with clear definitions and within well-defined boundaries. These very innovative ideas that people seem to have thought of out of the blue were never my part, and I felt that I simply “don’t have it”. Entrepreneurship never spoke to me, since I thought that entrepreneurs must have these big, crazy ideas naturally and constantly flowing out of their minds.

It took me years to understand that I am actually very creative and that these big ideas that successful entrepreneurs have, don’t actually come out of nowhere – they are much closer to my own tendency than I think.

Why did it take me so long to get this insight about myself? Because the creativity that we see as “ordinary people” is very different from the one that we need as product professionals. Think about where you were exposed to creativity as a child. For me, it was always around art: paintings, classic music, literature, sculptures, modern dance shows. All things that I might have enjoyed, but had no idea how people came to create them. It remained a riddle for me, and together with the amazing stories about the great artists we all grew up on – Picasso, Mozart, Van-Gogh – I had to conclude that rare talent was a necessary part of the job. A talent that I simply didn’t have.

What is common to all the examples I gave above, is the fact that they start from a blank canvas. Everything is truly open, and it’s up to you as the artist to imagine the whole thing and take it in whichever direction you choose. My mother always used to talk in amazement about how people used to write symphonies for the entire orchestra, without being able to hear it played during the process. Think about the mastery level it takes – to create a whole new reality entirely in your head.

If you look carefully, there is one type of art that didn’t appear on the list I made above: theatre. Theatre is an art that I personally feel much closer to, and understand much better how it works. Until a very late stage in my tech career, I was thinking about giving it up and becoming an actress. As a teenager, I studied in the best drama schools in Israel and was accepted into the full 3 or even 4-year program in a number of them.

Theatre acting requires a very different type of creativity. It’s not a blank canvas at all. For a starter, you have the play: a given text that you need to work with. You also have the director, who has their own idea of what the result should look like. As an actress or actor, you need to work with and within these constraints and still bring something of your own. In fact, you have to make it your own despite all these restrictions, or it simply won’t work. 

This type of creativity is much closer to the one that is needed for product management. When I realized that, I could unleash my creativity without feeling inferior to others.

Think Inside the Box

In product management, everything starts with the problem. Coming up with a problem that is worth solving is not easy, but it has its methods too. Once the problem is defined though, you have clear boundaries. You are in a box, and at this point, the box is empty. Within that box, you can be extremely innovative, and in some ways, it is much harder to create when you have many constraints that you need to satisfy than it is when everything is open.

Empowered product teams get problems to solve and figure out the solution together, rather than get product requirements and implement them. Problem-solving is a core capability that product managers need to have. Coming up with a solution that satisfies all the constraints you need to satisfy might be hard because your options are limited. But on the other hand, it also makes things easier, since you understand exactly what you are solving for. 

When I realized that this is something that I’m actually good at (innovating within given restrictions), I changed my approach to creativity: instead of focusing on new ideas, I started focusing on revealing the restrictions, so that I can easily innovate within them. 

If you don’t see yourself as creative according to the first type mentioned above, try the second type of creativity. Make it a habit to clearly define the box you work in. Once you are assigned a problem to solve, understand what would be considered a good solution. Ask yourself (and others) what is important for you about the solution. For example, you might need a solution that would demonstrate the value to the customer quickly, will be used often, and be quick to develop. In doing so, you also define which other traits are not as important – for example, scalability, security, or scope (support a variety of use cases at once).

Once you have that definition, it is much easier to come up with ideas to satisfy it. It is also much easier to rule solutions out since the success criteria are clearly defined. Instead of thinking about one, big, amazing idea, you can now bring up many ideas and know right away if they are good or not. Doing so also helps you get closer to the idea(s) that will actually satisfy everything you defined that you need because you get a better understanding of the dependencies and can add one constraint at a time until you have them all covered.

Understanding what you are solving for is an important skill for product managers. It applies also when you are interviewing. Your interviewers want to see that you have a solid line of thought for problem solving and reasoning, so stop looking for great ideas. Instead, focus on understanding the problem you are trying to solve. As Einstein allegedly said, if you have an hour to solve a problem, spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and only 5 minutes about the solution. If you do it well, the solution will be a no-brainer. 

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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