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Belief vs Faith in Product Management

I’ll admit that writing a blog post about product management with the words belief and faith in the title is a bit risky, but I stumbled across this concept in Alan Watt’s The Wisdom of Insecurity and the core idea felt incredibly applicable to product managers. It drives at the heart of what makes product management hard — believing in what you know is true versus being open to wherever your process leads you.

For Watts, belief is about wishing something were someway, regardless of the truth whereas faith is about remaining open to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Product managers face the belief vs faith dilemma every single day and, unfortunately, quite often mistake belief (“I think this idea is going to be great!”) for faith (“I know this idea is going to be great / terrible”).

We often talk about in terms of “falling in love with the solution,” which is really us believing that the solution is correct rather than having faith in our processes that get us the right answer. But why? We’re all smart people. Why do we get swept away by a specific solution without stepping back to see that it may not be right?

First, belief trumps faith when time is short. Any time there is external pressure on time (whether self-inflicted or not) teams resort to ideas they believe in. They cut corners. They ignore research. They don’t validate their ideas.

Second, belief trumps faith when arguments boil down to titles. In other words, if you’re making a decision because the person with the bigger title says so, you’re making a faith-based decision, not a belief-based one. Belief-based decisions are self-evident. They don’t require arguments over opinion because they are grounded in a process. There may be discussions about how to achieve a decision, but the decision itself — such as whether to build one new feature or another — shouldn’t be that controversial.

Third, belief trumps faith when there is no process to have faith in. Many organizations operate without a rigorous process of evaluating their product decisions. They instead hope (believe) that they’re making good choices. Not only does this type of decision making lead to poor outcomes there’s nothing to learn from those outcomes. You don’t have a process you can tweak because you’re just deciding that X is greater than Y.

As a product manager, it’s extraordinarily difficult to have faith in a process, especially when the process starts leading you in a direction you didn’t expect. The best teams trust their processes and don’t try to change them on the fly to accommodate preconceived ideas.

When was the last time you mistook belief for faith? When you fell in love with a solution to the point that it blinded you to the truth?

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