I recently finished reading ‘Improv Wisdom’, a wonderful book by Patricia Ryan Madson — I can’t recommend it enough.
This book opened my eyes to the fact that improv isn’t just for comedians and actors; it’s a skill for life. It’s about navigating every curveball life throws at us.
This is a quote from the book:
“On the home front, some improvisations produce a delicious dinner, a last-minute handmade birthday card, or words of appreciation at a retirement party. Fixing a flat tire is usually an improvisation. All of parenting is improvised; no book prepares us for it. All conversation — indeed, all natural speech, if you think about it — is an improvisation.”
And now read this quote from a product management book:
“no title or job description can definitively resolve the intrinsic ambiguity of product work.”
Did a light bulb just go off in your head, especially if you’re in product management like me? Well, it certainly did for me. Reading ‘Improv Wisdom’ felt like I was going through the product manager’s version of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ :).
In line with the Agile manifesto, “responding to change over following a plan” is central to product work.
Through this blog post, I want to share how the principles from Improv can help make one a better product manager. I’ll be referring to two books in this post. For Improv, it will be ‘Improv Wisdom’ (of course) and for Product Management, it will be ‘Product Management in Practice’ by Matt LeMay. It’s a book that, for me, strips away the fluff and gets straight to the heart of true product management.
1. Align better with ‘Yes, and…’:
Improv takes collaboration to the next level, it’s essentially about “building upon someone’s dream”. If there’s just one skill we can learn from improv as product managers, let it be this.
Quote from the book ‘Improv Wisdom’:
“The spirit of improvising is embodied in the notion of “yes and.” Agreement begins the process; what comes next is to add something or develop the offer in a positive direction.”
And Matt LeMay says,
“The best product managers I’ve met are those who truly believe that their team’s success is their own success.”
What better way to contribute to your team’s success than by building upon their ideas?
2. Get it done by ‘just showing up’:
The third maxim mentioned in ‘Improv Wisdom’ is ‘just show up’. The author explains:
“This principle is deceptively simple: Just show up. Where we are makes a difference. Move your body toward your dreams — to where they’re happening — the gym, the office, the yoga class, your kitchen, the improv class, the garage, a cruise ship, the word processor, the construction site, the senior center, the theater.”
I found it inspiring. Primarily because there’s so much a PM is supposed to do, and there could be tasks that one doesn’t necessarily enjoy.
In my case, for example, I love designing in Figma over documentation in Confluence, anyday. But there are weeks when I’m only supposed to do documentation and just showing up, helps. Blocking time for documentation in my calendar and then showing up that time helps me get by.
As LeMay puts it in his book:
“Successful product management is much less a question of titles, tools, or processes than it is of practice. I use this word the same way one might refer to a yoga practice or a meditation practice — it is something that is built up with time and experience and cannot be learned from examples and instructions alone”
3. Get real and “face the facts”:
‘Improv Wisdom’ advises us to act realistically.
“Improvisers need to enter the same reality to work together effortlessly. They establish the facts of the scene and agree to accept things as they are — in short, they act realistically.”
Accepting reality is pivotal both in improv and for PMs. Many PMs frequently read about how product management operates at tech giants like Google or Amazon. But not working at these giants can lead to workplace dissatisfaction.
Matt LeMay emphasizes the importance of “falling in love with reality.” He further explains:
“The truth is that all organizations have some fixed constraints to work within. Those constraints might be a function of their business model, their scale, or the attitudes and experiences of their leaders. And the sooner you acknowledge and understand those constraints, the sooner you can do your best work within them.”
4. Pay attention:
Juggling multiple responsibilities can be taxing, but paying keen attention is a superpower every PM should cultivate. ‘Improv Wisdom’ underscores the importance of shifting one’s focus from oneself to others.
As a product manager, our gaze should be firmly on our users and team, actively listening to their feedback and concerns. Currently, I’m honing my skills in “total listening” and concentrating on a singular task at a time.
This undivided attention communicates genuine interest to your team, which LeMay reiterates in his book:
“The best way product managers can earn the trust of developers, data scientists, or any other specialized professionals is by genuinely investing interest in their work.”
5. Be average:
We, the product folks, often pressure ourselves to develop the next disruptive feature.
However, ‘Improv Wisdom’ has a different take:
“Striving for an original idea can inhibit our innate creativity. Do what feels natural and obvious to you. Your unique perspective can be revolutionary to others.”
For product managers, the message is straightforward: focus on the problem-solving. It doesn’t always have to be groundbreaking. Our unique experiences and viewpoints already bring a fresh perspective to the table. As emphasized in the book — The overarching aim should be progress, not perfection:
“Good strategy is almost always…simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain.”
The insights from ‘Improv Wisdom’ compelled me to move from theory to practice; hence, I signed up for improv classes. Enrolling in improv classes with the phenomenal Kevin Frank has been transformative. Even though I’ve only attended a couple of classes, the value of improv in my daily life and profession has been palpable.
To all product managers out there, give ‘Improv Wisdom’ a read; you’ll realize the skills from this book perfectly compliment our work. I believe improv has the power to not just make us better PMs but also better members of the society