When to get out of the armchair

As a product manager, your job is to have an opinion about the way the future can and should look, and to steer your company’s resources such that you wind up there.

That means you have to do a lot of thinking about the future and the ways things could be. You’ll do much of that from the armchair — that is, in imagination and conversation, without collecting data from the real world.

But sometimes you’ll come to a question that you can’t answer from the armchair. For example, that sweet new game you’ve just dreamt up — will it be fun? At a certain point, the only way to get more information is to start creating and testing.

Armchair time is cheap. Developer time is expensive. So you want to get as much value out of your armchair as possible. But you don’t want to stay in there too long chasing insights that can only be won the hard way.

So how do you know when it’s time to get up out of the armchair and go build some stuff?

I think the most important thing is simply to recognize that some questions can be answered from the armchair, and some can’t. It turns out it isn’t hard to figure out which type any particular question is. So what you need to do is explicitly frame the questions that are in front of you, and of each one, ask yourself whether it can be answered from the armchair or not.

If you’re doing it right, many questions should appear — in fact, you should be overwhelmed by the fractalizing explosion of questions. That’s fine. Sit with that. Write them down. Sketch their relationships. Soon you’ll have a feel for the landscape, and you’ll know which questions need to be answered first. You’ll look at the sub-questions of those, and the sub-questions of those. You’ll methodically work your way through them. And all the while, you’ll constantly be noting whether each question is one that can be answered from the armchair, or is one that cannot.

By doing this you’ll be able to cash in on cheap armchair time where it’s useful, but when the question can’t be answered from the armchair you’ll do the right thing and either move on or go create.

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