The X-Factor of a Great Product Manager

I’ve been thinking about the specific traits and qualities that companies look for in a product manager lately. It’s sort of a silly question because most product managers wear a ton of hats as they bridge the gap between multiple departments with multiple needs, processes, and skills.

That said, while skills like knowledge of UX, top-notch communication, and customer empathy are important for the role, it can be possible to work effectively without being a master of all of them. There is one talent, though, that creates a basis for what a company wants out of this role, and it effectively boils down to being able to predict the future with a decent level of accuracy.

“Huh?”, you may have just thought to yourself. Let me explain.

Can product managers predict the future?

Nobody can actually see visions of the future, but the right traits make for a person who can see a rough idea of an unknown future that they can make assumptions about. They can then test those assumptions and gather new information to alter, clarify, or scrap the idea and start over if necessary.

Imagine an explorer in early civilization. They would go out, sometimes with a rough idea of what they were looking for, and try to figure out how things worked, where things could be found, and other patterns they would use to paint an ever-evolving picture of the world. 

Explorers are driven by the unknown and putting the puzzle together. Hiring managers call these traits “insight and instinct”.

What are insight and instinct?

One of the qualities I see in job postings for product managers is defined by terms like insight or instinct. These terms are fair, but what do they actually mean? Let’s talk about psychology for a moment:

We know that the human brain is incredibly lazy (an evolutionary strategy to conserve energy), which means that it’s very selective in the information it keeps or throws away. Your brain will remember who your family is, but not necessarily what they wore the last time you saw them.

But, there’s a key difference to the way a product manager’s brain decides which information is useful or not, and it comes down to patterns and the unknown. 

For example, if I tell you that a tomato is a fruit, do you…

  1. Accept that the tomato is indeed a fruit
  2. Ask what makes the tomato a fruit

Most people are comfortable having the answer to the question; the end-point without all of the context that led up to it. They think, “if I trust the authority of the person telling me that the tomato is a fruit, I’ll believe them and we’ll leave it at that”.

However, people who have a product manager brain aren’t satisfied with just being told the answer. Our brain has a drive for filling in the gaps of the unknown to make it easier to estimate other answers. We want to know that a tomato is a fruit because it has seeds inside it, which we can then use to assume, for example, that gourds like pumpkins are also fruits for the same reasons.

We find the underlying patterns and rules so that we can understand the answer, but more importantly, how we got to the answer.

The insight and instinct that companies are looking for boil down to this: do you subconsciously build a base of understanding, mechanics, and concepts, and do you use this base to make guesses about new unknowns you encounter?

What does this look like in a product manager’s actual job?

Product managers build the beginnings of a mind-map based on assumptions they already have. These assumptions can be based on previous experiences, data they’ve sourced, conversations with users, etc. Once product managers fill these assumptions in, they test them while adding, subtracting, and editing the mind-map.

The mind-map will never be a final answer; it can’t be. But, it’s product managers’ comfort and interest in working through unknowns that makes this not only manageable, but deeply rewarding.

So we’re asked the question, “should we build a feature that lets people subscribe for early access?” and our brains create a list of unknown variables that looks something like:

  • How many people will people actually subscribe?
  • What will people pay to subscribe?
  • Do people want early access?
  • Where should we put the subscribe button?
  • Etc.

We usually can’t answer these questions definitively, which is where many people freeze and get overwhelmed with decision paralysis. For a product manager’s brain, however, there’s partial information and context we know that will help us get closer to the answer. Looking at the first example above…

  • Will people subscribe?
    • People subscribe to our competitors for similar features
    • Customers have been requesting a subscription feature
    • Customers have complained about not having early access
    • We ran a test page about subscriptions and it was viewed 5000 times in a day
    • Etc.

This is it. This is our differentiator—our super power. We’re comfortable answering unknowns because even though we don’t have the answer, we have enough context to make assumptions about an answer based on previous patterns we’ve observed.

And we love this process; It’s like a game to us.


A product manager’s X-Factor is their ability to build evolving mental maps based on patterns and contextual information. This skill can be learned and trained to an extent, just like conversational techniques can be learned and trained by an aspiring salesperson, but the reality is that there are people who have these talents by default.

Think about how there are salespeople who don’t need training in conversational techniques that have just possessed the gifts since they were children. In this same way, there are product managers who have spent their lives recognizing patterns and creating complex mental maps, sometimes without even knowing.

Do you have this X-Factor?

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