Bill Ryan Product manager with B2C and extensive marketplace experience. As a steadfast follower of the Jobs-to-be-Done methodology, I strive to understand customer struggles as the primary catalyst for innovation and optimization.

What does it mean to have a growth mindset?

7 min read 2016

What Does It Mean To Have A Growth Mindset?

Every great product manager I’ve met possesses a perpetual hunger to learn and improve  —  whether for the benefit of their customers, their company, or themselves. A PM that lacks this self-motivation wouldn’t be nearly as effective in a world of ever-evolving technologies, methodologies, and customer needs.

In this guide, we’ll examine the concept of having a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) according to psychologist Carol Dweck. We’ll demonstrate how to develop a growth mindset at the organizational level and explore how it applies throughout the product lifecycle.

Read on to learn how adopting a growth mindset can help you accelerate your career growth and reignite your passion for delivering outstanding, scalable products that evolve to meet customers’ needs.

Table of contents

Carol Dweck’s growth mindset explained

Effective product management requires a dedicated person who embodies the characteristics of a growth mindset, a concept developed by psychologist Carol Dweck.

In her article ”Mindsets: Developing Talent Through a Growth Mindset,” Dweck explains the difference between two mindsets she discovered in her research:  fixed and growth:

“Those with a fixed mindset believe that their talents and abilities are simply fixed. They have a certain amount and that’s that. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, think of talents and abilities as things they can develop — as potentials that come to fruition through effort, practice, and instruction.”

Dweck discusses three rules that those with a growth mindset live by:

  1. Learn, learn, learn!
  2. Work with passion and dedication  —  effort is the key
  3. Embrace your mistakes and confront your deficiencies

As I thought about these rules, I realized how significant each rule is to being a successful product manager, and how I’ve seen them exemplified by the great product managers I’ve observed.

Whether you’re looking for new ways to grow your product, your career, or your aptitude for new methods and technologies, adhering to these rules below will accelerate your progress.

1. Learn, learn, learn!

Dweck explains that people with a fixed mindset choose to “hide their deficiencies, rather than take an opportunity to remedy them.” Those with a growth mindset recognize they should learn as much as possible to perform at a high level.

When it comes to product management, a learning-oriented mindset is essential to short-term and long-term success. This can take on a few applications:

Learn about your product

When you start at a new company or take ownership of a new product area, it’s critical to gain an in-depth understanding of the product. You can only grow and improve a product if you know the ins and outs of its current state, including:

  • The problems it solves (and doesn’t solve)
  • Why it matters to the business
  • How it compares with competitor products
  • Technological capabilities and constraints

You can learn a lot of this by speaking with colleagues and customers, but you should also use the product frequently to understand the product experience firsthand.

Learn about your customers

To build valuable and successful products, you need to learn about your customers and end users . Understanding  their needs and the problems they face will inform how you might improve their lives, and doing so requires that you leverage both qualitative and quantitative insights.

Qualitative learnings most commonly come from problem discovery interviews, usability interviews, surveys, external message boards, and any other methods of collecting direct customer feedback.

Quantitative analyses can fill the gap between what customers say they’ll do and what they actually do. You should monitor usage metrics closely to understand how customers are using your product and where they’re struggling.

For example, if one step of a signup flow is seeing large dropoffs, that’s a struggling moment. Use those inputs to discover the problems customers face while using your product and to inspire optimizations or larger enhancements.

Combining quantitative and qualitative insights can reveal innovative product ideas, such as those arising from compensating behaviors — when customers use a product not because it’s the best solution for their problems, but because it’s the best unsatisfactory solution.

In the early 1980s, Intuit realized small business owners were using Quicken (personal finance software) to manage their business finances because they didn’t understand the intricacies of complex accounting software. Intuit recognized the need for a simpler, lower-cost solution, and launched the highly successful Quickbooks.

Marketing teams are another important resource for learning about your customers are other teams at your company. They can contribute insights on industry and market trends, which messages resonate with customers, and how your product can best achieve product-market fit.

And, of course, let’s not forget about customer success and support teams, who are always speaking directly with customers.

Whether you use one or several of these methods at any given moment, approach customer learning with curiosity and empathy to ensure you’re building products that get to the core of their needs and deliver real value. This should be an ongoing process, not just once per quarter or when someone gets a new product idea.

Learn while building

Once you have a good understanding of your customers and their needs, you can use those insights to design a new product or improve an existing one.

This is not a path to go alone. Take care to leverage the expertise of those around you, including  design, research, engineering, analytics, marketing, and customer-facing teams. Collaborate to dissect customer problems, interpret data, and identify potential solutions — all while applying a growth mindset to identify new learnings that change your direction.

You may learn, for example, that the ideal solution you dreamed up isn’t technically feasible, but an alternative would provide equal value for the customer and viability for the business.

Learn after releasing

A product or feature release introduces new learning opportunities. Whether measuring results through A/B testing or pre-post analyses, you should monitor success metrics, engagement metrics, and qualitative feedback to understand performance.

From these insights, you’ll learn whether the product is a viable solution, which iterations to prioritize next to drive the best results, or whether it’s necessary to pivot to an entirely different approach.

The learnings gathered during this phase will not only inform your immediate work, they’ll also become part of your wider product knowledge toolkit and boost your growth as a product manager.

Learn about your craft

Aside from your customers and product, it’s important to acquire new knowledge about the product management discipline in general. You should always be looking for new methodologies, technologies, or industry developments that can help you grow. There’s an endless supply of valuable product management content out there to facilitate this, including books, podcasts, meetups, and seminars.

Perhaps the most valuable resource in this pursuit is a mentor. Great product people at all levels know they can’t do it all alone, and the right mentor can guide you through the immediate challenges you face while accelerating your long-term career growth.

Finding a mentor can be a difficult task. Luckily, there are a lot of great tips available online for how to build this relationship.

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2. Work with passion and dedication  —  effort is the key

According to Dweck, people with a growth mindset “understand that effort is what ignites their ability and causes it to grow over time.”

A product management career requires a high degree of effort to succeed. When this effort is combined with passion and dedication, the relationshiping is causal: your passion for product fuels your dedication to success and motivates you to expend the effort required to achieve it.

When it comes to day-to-day product management work, passion can manifest in various forms. The most essential of these is passion for the company’s mission and solving the customer’s problems.

Passion for the product can also relate to the type of product and how it will accelerate the product manager’s growth. If a product manager who wants to gain experience with machine learning takes on a new role in this area, they will be driven by the passion and dedication of not only delivering value, but by their own desire to learn about these technologies and the products they enable.

The absence of passion and dedication can cause a product manager to become burnt out, resulting in decreased levels of effort and unnecessary product failures. When you find yourself struggling to maintain excitement, motivation, or typical levels of production, assess if it may be a consequence of diminishing passion for and dedication to your product, and determine how you can overcome this hurdle.

If you’re simply feeling overworked, take a vacation. We all need rest to perform at our peak.

If it’s due to a string of unsuccessful releases, a desire to work on a different product area, or a lack of being challenged, talk to your manager about other opportunities available to you at the company.

If you’ve ruled everything else out, the answer may simply be that your time at the company has run its course. There’s no shame in admitting when you’ve lost passion for the company or the product, or when you fail to see continued growth opportunities by staying put. Update your resume, brush up on your interviewing skills, and move on.

3. Embrace your mistakes and confront your deficiencies

The final rule put forth by Dweck is based on her discovery that growth-mindset individuals are more able to overcome setbacks than those with a fixed mindset.

If product management were a career free from mistakes and risks, it would make our lives much easier (and, I’d argue, much less exciting).

When releasing a new product or feature, it’s good to have some level of optimism that it will be successful. However, even after all the problem discovery and hard work leading up to release, there’s still a chance it will fail.

Which brings us back to rule no. 1: learn, learn, learn!

Yes, you will make mistakes, but it’s what you do after those mistakes that defines you and your future successes. Rather than wallow in the fact that your first instinct was wrong, take a step back to evaluate what you can learn from the failures and push forward.

This goes beyond product releases. Maybe you forgot to communicate a big change to a stakeholder or missed an important requirement that delayed the deadline you provided to leadership.

Whatever the mistake, you should own it, exhibit resilience in the face of failure, and reflect on how you can avoid the same mistake in the future.

Situations in which we recognize our own mistakes often yield self-awareness regarding areas we can improve in and motivate us to confront those deficiencies head-on.

Other times, we carry deficiencies we aren’t aware of. This is where you should feel comfortable actively soliciting constructive criticism from your leaders, peers, stakeholders, and mentors. If you have a growth mindset, you’ll receive and internalize this feedback without becoming defensive and use it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

The growth mindset means always evolving

Product management is a rewarding yet challenging career, and succeeding in it requires a growth mindset at nearly every turn.

By adopting and nurturing a growth mindset, you’ll have the confidence to know there are always new things to learn, new mistakes and deficiencies to overcome, and new ways to apply passion, dedication, and effort that result in a fulfilling and successful career.

To learn more about Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindsets, I recommend starting with her TED Talk or her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Featured image source: IconScout

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Bill Ryan Product manager with B2C and extensive marketplace experience. As a steadfast follower of the Jobs-to-be-Done methodology, I strive to understand customer struggles as the primary catalyst for innovation and optimization.

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