The secret to product management: Think like a magician

Jared Molton - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Jared Molton (MBA ’15)

What do a magician and a product manager have in common?

At first glance, not a whole lot. One endlessly practices sleights in front of a mirror and sells himself to anyone who will pay for a show – the virtues of show business. The other bridges software development engineers, user experience designers, finance gurus and operations teams to build a product that customers demand and delight in.

While the job descriptions are night and day, the skills I’ve developed as a professional magician have well equipped me for a career in product management at Amazon.

Preparation makes the difference
To do magic, one must be prepared. This preparation isn’t limited to practicing sleight-of-hand – it includes scripting and rehearsing every line that will be delivered. Magicians do this because the right word or movement at the right time can exemplify the effect and leave a more lasting impression. To call this confidence boosting is an understatement. It’s power. When I do magic, I have no fear of the person I’m performing for – whatever their title or position – because they’re on a journey that I dictate, and I know all the nuances.

Having this skill in my arsenal has been essential as a product manager. Obtaining buy-in from other teams can be challenging, so it’s important to prepare for meetings by building an agenda and thinking about what the teams you’re trying to influence really want. What truly motivates them? If you do your homework, prepare and ask yourself all the hard questions that you expect them to ask, you’ll be ready to drive the discussion towards your goal.

This also translates into leadership reviews. When you’re the most well prepared person in the room, you’re unstoppable. You can communicate clearly and confidently and internally revel in the fact that you have honed magical powers.

Adapt to thrive
The only truth in performing arts is Murphy’s Law. Practice and preparation only go so far. During a live performance, the unexpected inevitably happens. Perhaps the card I’m about to reveal is not the selected one or a match extinguishes before hitting the candle wick. When these unforeseen occurrences arise, a magician must remain cool because the audience does not know what is supposed to happen and you never want to let them know that something is awry.

It’s in these moments that improv takes over and the magic takes a turn down a different road with a different finale. Let’s go back to the example of the incorrect card being revealed. Rather than ending the magic there and panicking, a good magician will place the card in an audience member’s hands and have them flip it over to find that the card has transformed into their selection. While this isn’t what was planned, it is a more magical effect.

In product management, the ability to remain cool under pressure and adapt to new information is vital. Often, business priorities shift. A product you might have been working on for months could pivot into another product entirely. Rather than taking this change as an affront to your work, it’s more productive to recognize that a change means new opportunities that could work in your favor. Of course, you have the right to (and should) understand why the decision was made. If you disagree with the decision, you should stand up and fight. But if it’s the right move, then go with it and don’t take it personally. Being able to adapt is a powerful skill. It enables you to focus on business priorities and perform exceptionally regardless of the circumstances.

Perfection is not real
One of my favorite parts about magic is that no matter how hard I work at refining a trick, there are always ways I can improve. There’s one effect in particular which I’ve been working on for the past four years. It’s a simple plot. The four aces are placed in a row face down on the table. Twelve other playing cards from the deck are dealt face-up onto the table into a single pile, one at a time. Those cards are then turned over and dealt onto the aces. An audience member places their hand on top of any of the four piles. The three piles they did not choose are flipped over to reveal that the aces in those piles have vanished. All four aces are found underneath the participant’s palm.

The simplicity of this effect is beautiful to me, but to do it right is challenging and in my hands it’s nowhere near perfect. But that’s okay. I can show this trick to others and watch them delight in it. They love it, and they don’t see the imperfections that I breathe.

As a PM, I spend a lot of my time analyzing data, writing business cases and working with partners to develop customer experiences. There are always trade-offs that must be made that prevent the customer experience from being everything it could be. And even if those trade-offs didn’t exist, there will always be subtle holes in the design or development of a product that have not been patched. Perfection in a product is a rabbit hole – it’s unattainable. Products, like magic tricks, are always works in progress that can always be improved. Making perfection the bar for launch ensures one thing: you’ll slip.

By Jared Molton (MBA ’15), senior product manager at Amazon and former general manager of Louis Tannen Inc., New York City’s oldest magic shop

This post has been republished with permission from the author. View the original post here.