We are taught to experience life, not just live in it, and this can be true for product management. PMs need different lenses to solve problems and develop ideas. How do we cultivate storytelling with our products? VP of Product at Disney Streaming Dave Lankford speaks about inclusivity and true listening, and how this relates to product development.

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On Looking At The World For Experiences

As an actor, Dave Lankford learned that he couldn’t spend his time in a studio to prepare for a role. He needed to get out and explore the world to gain experience. It is important to work on your craft and gain knowledge anywhere you can to create inclusivity. This is also true for product management.

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve learned that have helped me look at problems through different lenses. Sometimes you need that different lens to solve a problem. I’ve never really researched it because I want it to be true, but the verb play, to play a game, for instance, and the noun play, as in like a theatrical production, are the same word and not just English, but in languages around the world. It says that you have to play in order to create a play. 

The more you think about that, and the more I think about what I learned as an actor, is that a lot of your job is listening: you’re listening to the other actors, you are processing what they’re saying in the moment, which you may have rehearsed a million times but in that moment, it’s unique, it’s different. Your job is to make it real by saying something that shows that you’re listening to that other actor. There’s a lot of reacting, there’s a lot of listening.

I think that goes to product management, as well as being able to be inclusive of the other voices that are part of your team or are working with you, your stakeholders, really listening to that, listening to your customers, and being able to add value to what you’re learning along the way.”

On Inclusivity and Incorporating “Yes/And”

Dave mentions how a noted improv teacher Dell Close popularized the idea of “yes/and”. He says that while on stage, as you are improvising, you need to keep adding information to a scene, and not negate or destroy information. This way, you build the scene and you eventually find your stride. This all relates to the product development process, as well.

“When you’re working on a product, whether you’re trying to solve a problem, or look at how you create an opportunity, you really need to be inclusive of the voices by having that ‘yes/and’ mentality. So if someone comes and they have an idea or a point of view, the best way to be inclusive is, before you challenge it, and before you debate it (there is room for that, by the way), but at those early stages is to say yes/and contribute value on top of what that person is bringing.

That does two points. First of all, that allows their voice to be heard and to be part of the conversation, and it also allows your own viewpoint to exist at the same time. The more viewpoints you get, and the more additive they are, the more likely the better product you’re going to get. The other thing … I talk about values with my team a lot … (and)  I like to have fun with the way I talk about values. One of the values that we talked about on the team is starting your own heist movie. … What’s unique about a heist movie is that you as the protagonist are recruiting a crew of experts who are there to help solve that mission to achieve it. … You have to look at the teams that you put together because I do think that our product manager’s role is recruiting that team. It is finding people who might have experiences within the organization that you don’t have … The more inclusive you are, and the more diverse that team is, the better your team will be at achieving that mission.”

On Practicing Inclusivity and Diversity

Inclusivity and diversity are key aspects to making a great product. Dave notes that diversity of participants is part of the product development process, giving them a place at the table and being equitable in terms of investing in their careers. This helps you connect your product with your audience and creates better decision-making.

“It’s often easier said than done, but I think like everything, and this is where you know, speaking to product managers, is it something you just have to practice, it is something that you have to consciously bake into what you do, and the way you look at your day-to-day activities. 

Ask yourself the question, Is there someone else I should be including in this conversation? Just ask that question every once in a while, and sometimes even come up with someone who is maybe not the person you would normally ask to join the conversation. Sometimes just creating some novelty in terms of who you’re talking to is a great first step, and will get you in that direction. 

Talking in big terms around culture and communities, that’s really hard for one person to grok and sense themselves in that, but it’s a lot simpler on a day-to-day basis when you just look at who’s not sitting next to me and is down the hall or on zoom that I can dial-up, and how do I get them to be a part of this conversation? It’s exciting to engage other people and see what they would say.”