guest blogger product management

We can be (Product Management) Heroes

Guest Post by: Chris Bell (Mentee, Session 10, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Jordan Bergtraum]

“I wish you could swim like dolphins can swim though nothing will keep us together”

These lines from David Bowie’s Heroes always struck me as odd. The two lines just seem to jar against each other: thoughts about dolphins alongside relationship breakdown. I recently learned that Bowie used to write his lyrics on paper, cut these up and rearrange them to produce a more mysterious effect. It obviously worked, because even though the juxtaposition always struck me as odd, it forced me to pay more attention.

Discussing heroes in a different context, I realised a similar process was happening. When interviewing subject matter experts, ask them “what would make you a hero?” or “what would make you a rockstar?”

I work in the B2B sector where very few people would consider themselves to be “heroes” or “rockstars”, and I was intrigued to see what results these questions would produce. At first they led to smiles or confused giggling, but it subsequently led to insightful responses because, just like the Bowie song for me, it encouraged my interviewees to think differently.

During discovery, we typically ask deliberate and purposeful questions, and seek clarification as we proceed. Similar to the questioning in classic courtroom dramas. We ask questions to get a version of the truth, being conscious not to ask leading questions, lest we influence their response with our own understanding. This typically produces good, but formulaic responses.

However, if you ask more quirky questions, you can:

  • Promote higher order thinking;
  • Stimulate left and right brain thinking;
  • Introduce cognitive dissonance; and
  • Make discovery memorable.

Promote Higher Order Thinking

The problem with asking people to explain the processes and pain points they have within the B2B space is that, at its most basic, you’re asking someone how they do their job and people are a little too used to talking about this to think about it creatively without prompting.

In “Thinking Fast and Think Slow” Daniel Kahneman identifies two orders of thinking:

  • System one – our fast, automatic and unconscious thinking
  • System two – slow, effortful and conscious thinking

Research has shown that students that were asked question in a harder to read font out-performed their peers with easier to read fonts. Even though the question was consistent, a different response was produced by invoking a higher order of thinking.

There is an interesting line to tow, and it can be a difficult line to tow:

  • When you ask “familiar” discovery questions, you will get less thoughtful responses than if you asked questions that are more “quirky”, because the respondent functions on auto-pilot.
  • When you ask questions in terms that are too far removed from what the the respondent is used to, you risk getting responses that are too far outside the box to be useful.

The ideal balance lies between these two extremes.

Stimulate left and right brain thinking

Aligned with the two general levels of thinking, the human brain is divided into two halves. The left of our brain controls our logical and analytical processes, while the right of our brain produces our creative capacities.

By leveraging inquiries that are not logical, we activate the creative part of the brain which enables us to engage with the content in a different way. For example, I started this article with a personal anecdote, seemingly quite unrelated to the body of the article, to activate the right hemisphere of your brain, enabling you to engage with the content in a more imaginative way.

Introduce cognitive dissonance

By asking quirky questions, we introduce cognitive dissonance.  People are uncomfortable holding contradictory views – for example, that in our day to day work, we can be “rockstars”. People then work to remove the discomfort. “Quirky” inquiries, subconsciously stimulate answers that, while far from what they would have otherwise produced, are feasible.

In Innovation Games, Luke Hohmann uses this within games to produce effective customer research. One of the games – “Give them a hot tub” – relies on suggesting products that are ludicrous, such as a vacuum cleaner that walks the dog, or a car that contains a hot tub, to see if the audience can transform “ludicrous” into something realistic.

Make discovery memorable

We hope our discovery interactions will not be one-off – following up to test an MVP or tapping these people to be customers. It helps to be memorable. By asking quirky questions, we help people remember our discussions and can then utilise this for subsequent interaction.

For example, I recently signed up for a subscription book service where in the middle of the onboarding process, I was asked what my “spirit animal” was (albatross, if you’re wondering). I’m not sure how much the zoomorphic thoughts of those signing up will impact the development of the service, but it certainly made the company more memorable and me more likely to be a source of feedback.

How did it impact our roadmap?

When I switched from basic questions to the more quirky “how can we make you a hero” questions, the same feature kept coming up: more in depth reporting.

We historically undervalued this request, as a lot of businesses do, as a nice to have. However, as we talked about being a hero with customers they raised this point and they got strategic, rather than tactical. The importance of being able to see insights was not to be able to check that everything was on track, but to be able to find actionable insights to improve their own working and to demonstrate their value at a business-wide level. Ultimately, their notion of being a hero was in being able to show their worth outside their own team, something that clients otherwise didn’t discuss.


It may seem like an idiosyncratic approach to discovery, and  it doesn’t replace a deep understanding of the processes and pain points of clients, but asking your questions in unique ways can produce insights into customer needs you might otherwise miss. So… do you wish you could swim like dolphins can swim?


About Chris Bell


Chris works on dusting cobwebs off the legal industry at Axiom Managed Solutions. He has previously worked in product in the fintech and legaltech sectors. He is based in London.




More About The Product Mentor

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Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.

Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…

  • Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
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Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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