Product development is all about making difficult choices. As Product Managers we are frequently faced with a series of difficult trade-off decisions. Should we build this extra feature or use the time to pay off some technical debt instead? Should we invest in building out a new upsell opportunity or use the time to improve the experience of an existing product? These are all hard choices to make.
Some choices are even more difficult than these though. Opposable options are choices that involve a complex balancing act, rather than a simple either/or. By improving one parameter, we actually make another parameter worse. Think of the times when you run out of battery and your smartphone becomes about as useful as a paperweight. The challenge with improving battery life is that this is an “opposable option”. It is perfectly feasible to build a smartphone that could last for days. The problem is that doing so would be huge and heavy. Improving battery life comes at the cost of size – and the market has an obvious preference for slimmer phones. Some users need longer-lasting batteries, but not everyone is doing Tinder marathons, streaming video in the toilets at work or Snapchatting with their “grandmother” in the wee small hours.
What most people do when faced with opposable options is to weigh up the options and settle for the best of a bad bunch. What great Product Managers do goes against the age-old advice: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. They simply don’t settle for the choices before them. Instead, they hold these conflicting options in a constructive tension. Doing this requires us to activate our “opposable mind”.
Using our opposable minds to move past unappetising alternatives, we can find solutions that once appeared beyond the reach of our imaginations
What this does is enable us to treat each option not as fact or hard constraint, but as a hypothesis. Great Product Managers then allow their minds to seek out novel solutions that allow invalidating one or both of the hypothesis. Their mind is open to the discovery of new information, new sources and new clues that would allow them to “Have their cake and eat it too”.
Often, they will be surrounded by a chorus of people pointing out that this is impossible. Experts will tell them it can’t be solved and all of the data that has gone before (“best practice”) will confirm that there is no way through but to make the trade-off. They will push the people around them to try and find solutions, testing various “pointless” iterations and approaches. Every now and then, the “impossible” happens – a breakthrough.
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise
Opposable mind as an indicator of “intelligence” may have been a good test in 1936, when Fitzgerald wrote this. Given the increasing complexity and speed required in today’s work, it’s possibly even more valid now. At any rate, for Product Managers today (or anyone working in product development) an opposable mind is a crucial skill to develop. How else are we to lead the development of products and services that truly delight customers?
Here are some ways to develop our opposable mind:
- Keep your options open, treat opposing ideas as hypothesis and don’t settle in too quickly. Instead turn your hypothesis into experiments that you can test. Where Cost of Delay justifies the cost, use concurrent engineering to pursue multiple solutions.
- Use integrative thinking create solutions which incorporate the best of opposable options on the table. You need to resist oversimplifying problems to be able to do this or avoid over specialising solutions that optimise for just one of the opposable options.
- Tap into collective wisdom of the crowd when tackling challenging problems.
Opposable Mind by Roger Martin