A list of tangential reads for product managers

There are 100s of posts out there about books that help hone the art of product management. I’m putting down a list of books that are tangential to honing the art of being a product manager, but are nevertheless extremely valuable reads that a PM can gain from. I also mention what the key insight or area the book addresses.

  1. Playing to win: How strategy really works, by A.G. Lafley.

Wikipedia defines strategy as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”. As per Michael Porter, strategy is: “the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities, which requires us to make trade-offs in competing, and involves creating a “fit” among a company’s activities. This book provides a very simple framework to lay out a strategy for the long, short or medium term. While the book goes into a lot of details talking about how this could be implemented with big organizations, which departments should be responsible for which segment, and other such implementation specifics, the single image that crystallizes this book, once absorbed, is sufficient to change the way you think about laying out your choices and what your company’s or startup’s strategy is.

Get the book here.

2. The signal and the noise, by Nate Silver

In a time when all and sundry are experts on analytics and big data, there are a few who can take a step back and call a spade a spade. Nate Silver spends many chapters talking about the power of prediction, and specific instances where his models have been on point, but he carefully backs this up with instances of human folly in predicting events, where there is an over-confidence, but clearly underlying phenomena aren’t very well understood. A great book to help inculcate a sense curiosity about understanding underlying patterns, whether human behavior, company behavior, or natural phenomena. Indispensable for anyone that hopes to ever make any sense of data, or use data for any other benefit.

Get the book here.

3. Blink: The power of thinking without thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

What is gut, what is intuition? Gladwell uses several scenarios to sum up that what we call gut, intuition or snap decision making, is usually the combination of several little cues that our subconscious mind takes from the situation we are in, and processes them at a very fast rate, to form a subtle judgment, which we often mistake for a “gut feeling”. This subconscious process is always on, and typically doesn’t need to be “kicked” into action, and is always processing cues from the environment. This is really the limbic system, the primal system that evolution has made into a pretty sophisticated decision tool. Unfortunately, this system is likely very easily swayed, and Gladwell also illustrates such scenarios. To my mind, this work is very similar to reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, which gets a lot more scientific in explaining why we think the way we think, and the fallacies of this “lazy judgment” process. While the former is a much shorter and easier to digest read, the latter is a Nobel Laureate’s life’s work, put into a book for common man to digest, and hence is quite long, and not an easy read. To get a kick-start into understanding decision making, start with Blink, but do move on to Think eventually, to get a much more technical in-depth coverage of the subject.

Get Blink here, and get Thinking Fast and Slow here.

4. The Dip: A little book that tells you when to quit, by Seth Godin

One of my most favorite books of all time, this one is an underrated classic. Classical wisdom, and parents tell us, that winners don’t quit. Seth on the other hand leverages the economic theory of “Sunk Cost” to come up with a framework to show that what has gone past doesn’t matter, but what is likely to come ahead, and whether something is a goal worth achieving should determine if an endeavour should be quit, or stuck to. It helps one see situations where you’re stuck with a “losing cause” and aren’t quitting for the sake of the romantic notion of not quitting, with the loss being the opportunity cost for not being able to pursue other initiatives, which could actually matter in the big scheme of things. A couple of quotable quotes from the book:

“Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt”.

“What really sets superstars apart from everyone else is the ability to escape dead ends quickly, while staying focused and motivated when it really counts.”

Get the book here.

5. Zero to One: Notes on startups, or how to build the future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

This is one of those books that you have to re-read a couple of times, because once is not enough to absorb and internalize every piece of original advice it lays out. Whether it is about having an answer to the question, “What important truth do few people agree with you on?”, or the 7 key questions that he recommends every new business must answer, each of these would typically disrupt your notions, and take a while to adopt as a way of thinking. A must-read for anyone with any interest in startups. And I personally hope that Peter Thiel and Blake Masters make a lot of money from putting all these thought processes into a book for the world to read.

Get the book here.

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