Outside the comfort zone
Is it possible to change our mindset when navigating the unknown?
It’s often said that getting out of your comfort zone is the only way to develop. The (somewhat) good news for PMs is that we’re often already doing this in our day-to-day due to the varied and unstructured nature of the role.
As a new product manager, I’m experiencing this first-hand. I’m balancing learning the ‘theory’ behind product management alongside putting this into practice in a new product team. Having done neither of these things before, my comfort zone is pretty far away - which has left me needing some coping strategies. Here’s how I’m handling being thrown into new situations.
The basics of your comfort zone
Firstly, it’s worth recognising that there are varying degrees of leaving your comfort zone regarding new experiences.
In the comfort zone, tasks are low effort, unchallenging, and largely unrewarding. Being in this zone all the time can be equally stressful as being stretched, leading to boredom and unfulfillment.
The growth zone is the sweet spot just outside your existing level of knowledge where there’s a degree of challenge and risk, but it’s not overly scary or new. This is the ideal space to develop and set achievable goals.
The panic zone, AKA the stress zone, describes a situation far away from your existing knowledge or experience. This is where it starts to get overwhelming, and feelings of self-doubt can creep in, making it less conducive to doing good work.
Embrace the first time
From my experience, being in product management has meant continually dealing with firsts, whether it’s the first time in a new team, a new area of the business or just a new concept I haven’t come across before. First times are a prime example of discomfort. It's a little like my first driving lesson… which I still wince at when I think back to how stressful it was being unable to control a car. And it didn’t resolve itself overnight - the second, third and fourth times were just as unnatural.
I love Brene Brown’s idea of FFTs (F-ing First Times: listen here) as a three-step way to navigate this.
Remind yourself that this is precisely how it’s supposed to feel in a new situation. Being new at something can still be awkward, even if you’re committed and excited to learn.
Put it in perspective
Although this is how you feel, it’s not permanent. It also doesn’t mean you’re bad at everything!
Take a reality check
Realise that this might take a while to get more manageable, and importantly, it might also take longer than you initially expected. This isn’t just true for you but potentially also for the people around you in your team if they’re in the same position.
This is a great way to help manage unrealistic expectations while getting to grips with something unfamiliar, such as doing a product discovery.
Take stock of what you can control
The other side to this, which I’ve found to be equally reassuring, is making the most of what I do know during this learning time—for example, digging into previous pieces of work or data to boost my understanding. And then there are others to lean on for support. Without direct prior experience to draw on, there are others in the team or in the broader community with this who are more than willing to help out.
Ask the right questions
Adhering to ‘there’s no such thing as a silly question’ can go out the window if others in the room all seem familiar with jargon or acronyms being thrown around. This is especially true if it’s a new industry where others have more background or expertise. More than once, I’ve found myself smiling and nodding during technical discussions while furiously typing notes to return to later.
Finding a safe space to ask the questions you need to ask is essential, even if it means saving it for a separate meeting. After all, sometimes being the outsider has advantages; you might raise a point that hadn’t been considered before just by speaking up.
Celebrate the small wins
As mentioned earlier, being realistic with expectations and timelines is necessary when doing something outside your comfort zone. I’ve started to let go of expecting to have the complete picture overnight and moved towards viewing being 2% more comfortable as a step forward. This has meant acknowledging the most minor things as progress, alongside the fact that it’s hard enough to be in a learning space to start with.
Making discomfort the new normal
While grasping the basics as a PM and encountering situations outside my comfort zone, shifting my perspective has been a game changer. Reframing discomfort as normal and seeing the positives can make coping much more straightforward. Going forward, I’m taking a step back from the stress zone and welcoming my status as a learner.
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