Empathy and Product Management

How important is empathy in product management?

By Ken Norton

4 min read • Jan 31, 2016

Ken Norton

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Abstract drawing of two people attempting to connect with each other

“Highly empathic people are engaged in a constant search for what they share with other people, even when those people appear alien to them.”

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, has young twins – a boy and a girl. He once watched his daughter comfort his crying son by bringing him her favorite toy dog. It was a sweet moment of self-sacrifice. Some six months later, his daughter was again trying to console her brother. But Krznaric noticed that something had changed: this time she didn’t give him her favorite stuffed animal. Rather, she ran and fetched his favorite toy cat. In those intervening months, his daughter had learned to take her brother’s perspective. She had developed empathy. (This story also illustrates the difference between the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule.)

If you could guarantee that a child would grow up with just one personality trait, what would you choose? Most of the other traits on my list – such as kindness, fairness, or being a good friend – all stem from empathy. Empathy is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see and understand the world from their perspective. As sociologist Richard Sennett puts it, empathy is “the sentiment of curiosity about who other people are in themselves.” (Empathy is not sympathy. Check out this amazing animated video short if you’d like to better understand the important differences between empathy and sympathy.)

Much has been written about empathy when it comes to product design, user experience, and understanding customers. If you’re building something for someone else, you’ll be more successful if you can identify with their needs first. But empathy is also essential to leading a team, especially for PMs who tend to have responsibility without authority and must earn the respect and support of others. If you can see the world through your engineer’s eyes, or from the perspective of your VP of sales, you can understand what motivates them, what frustrates them, and what you can do to help.

Empathy and leading without authority is the topic of an upcoming talk I’ll be giving, so I’m thinking deeply about this. I’m looking for examples to use in my talk: what do you think about empathy in product management? Have you read any good books or articles? Do you have any examples of working with someone who had empathy in spades (or who lacked it)?

Good Reads

What do product VPs at high-growth startups have in common? Mike Belsito surveys more than 50 venture funded startups to see what characteristics their product leaders share. For the most part, they’re experienced PMs but this is their first executive-level role, the majority don’t have technical backgrounds or degrees, and – sadly – they’re still almost all dudes.

I’ve helped match many startups with VPs of product and CPOs. I’ve found that having successfully led teams and shipped products is increasingly valued by founders and CEOs more than specific domain experience. As one portfolio CEO put it, “they can learn our industry, but I can’t afford for them to learn how to ship.” These positions are also notoriously difficult to fill. I don’t have raw data, but I suspect it takes an average of six months to fill a VP of product position. I’ve been working with one startup that’s been searching for more than a year. With strong product founder/CEOs, leaving the position unfilled is more desirable than hiring the wrong person.

I have a lot of opinions about when to hire your first non-founding PM and senior product leader, especially given how long it takes to find the right person. But I’ll save those for another day. (Hey, I need to give you at least one reason to stay subscribed.)

“A sophisticated retail giant felled by the most mundane, basic and embarrassing of errors.” Target’s doomed foray into Canada offers a cautionary product management tale about aggressive expansion to new markets and the importance of data quality. “Nobody wanted to be the one to say, ‘This is a disaster.’” On behalf of Target, Canada apologizes.

Don’t be afraid of the big bad BigCo. Former President of Microsoft’s Windows Division Steven Sinofsky shares his judo techniques for competing with big incumbents (and he should know). “A strategy tax can be like a boat anchor for a competitor. Any time you can use that constraint to your advantage you’ll have a unique opportunity.”

They give your company superpowers. Since it was a tiny startup, Google has used Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to set and measure ambitious goals. Google’s People Ops team recently published a detailed guide to OKRs on Google re:Work. And don’t miss this intro to OKRs by my GV partner Rick Klau, AKA Mr. OKRs.

Where I’ll Be Speaking

Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Mind The Product, San Francisco

MTP is one of the best organized and most informative product-oriented conferences I’ve ever been to. It’s a must-attend for product leaders. The organizers have graciously extended a limited number of $100 discount codes for me to share, use this link (feel free to share with a friend, but please don’t post publicly): [FOR SUBSCRIBERS ONLY]

If you want to get a feel for Mind the Product, check out my talk from 2015’s London edition about thinking 10x instead of 10%.

Books I’ve Read Recently

I found these three to be the most accessible books about empathy:

Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric Krznaric helps us first understand empathy and why it’s important, then outlines the six habits of highly empathetic people. A good overview of what it is and why it matters.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker Pinker’s epic and provocative treatise on the history of violence makes a compelling argument that despite the daily news, humanity is on a peaceful trajectory. Pinker argues that empathy has played an important role in that, and that humans became more empathetic after the spread of literature: for the first time in history, you could crack open a book and see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love by Jon Kolko Kolko’s book helps us learn how to use empathy to design products that are better suited to solving their problems.

Also take a look at my complete list of recommended books for product managers.

Originally Published: January 31, 2016

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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