10 Unexpected Books That Will Boost Your Product Manager Skills

Product management places a premium on a multidisciplinary approach. These books will help you adopt one.
Headshot of Alex J. Hughes.
Alex J. Hughes
Expert Contributor
February 25, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of Alex J. Hughes.
Alex J. Hughes
Expert Contributor
February 25, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

Reading books specific to your discipline is important. It allows you to discover direct applications to your work and you don’t have to work too hard to make the connection.

But it’s not enough: Product management places a premium on a multidisciplinary approach.

The concept behind a multidisciplinary approach is that broad exposure to a range of subjects enables you to leverage the most useful knowledge from each, so you’re able to make better decisions. If you confine yourself to a single discipline with a limited skill set, growth is often incremental at best.

The more flexible and wide-ranging your mental models, the stronger your decision-making and the less rigid your thinking. In product, this allows you to make evaluations based on multiple perspectives and gain the right vantage point to find the best path forward.

Above any sort of formal education, certificate, or career development program, the single most important thing I’ve done to accelerate my career is reading across disciplines. Most product managers focus exclusively on the same set of product-specific books and articles. But there are equally valuable lessons waiting to be uncovered across genres that can give you an edge.

The following 10 books are by no means comprehensive, but they will provide you a start toward your own multidisciplinary approach and a glimpse beyond traditional product or technology books. From different perspectives and points in history, the books cover themes of psychology and human nature; culture, teamwork, and ownership; and mental models and better decision-making.

From here you can begin to form connections and draw parallels to products to better understand your customers, dial in your mental models, and learn to operate as part of a high-performing team.

Books That Will Level up Your Product Skills

  • The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
  • The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
  • Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller
  • Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
  • Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
  • Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
  • The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts by Rhiannon Beaubien and Shane Parrish
  • Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
  • Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

 

Books on Psychology and Human Nature

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

If you want to be a great product manager, it benefits you to have a strong understanding of human nature. Not only because you’re building for human beings (which requires empathy, an ability to listen, and an awareness to examine beneath what you hear), but also because you have to learn how to effectively manage up, collaborate with stakeholders, work with different people, build a high-performing culture for your team, push yourself, and translate learnings based on the audience in front of you.

This book is an instructive guide to human nature and people’s behavior based on evidence rather than a particular viewpoint or moral judgment.

As Greene emphasizes throughout the book, understanding human nature in a deep way is advantageous for countless reasons. It helps you become a strategic observer, a better judge of character, outthink malicious people, motivate and influence those around you, alter negative patterns, develop greater empathy, and recognize your true potential. Greene pulls stories from both sides throughout history — masters as well as those who have failed spectacularly — to breathe life into each law.

 

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

Whether you’re advancing in your career and have direct reports or you’re an individual contributor collaborating with engineering, design, and other cross-functional stakeholders, it’s important to realize that people have different motivations and that everyone navigates conflict in different ways.

First, you need to build the self awareness to be able to step back and observe your immediate reactions before you act so you can make more rational decisions. However, it’s also important to understand that the way you think about and respond to challenges is not the same as everyone else on your team. If you want to rally a team around a vision and build engagement, you must realize these differences.

In The Four Tendencies, Rubin details four main personality tendencies — upholder, questioner, obliger, rebel — that we all gravitate toward based on how we handle internal and external expectations. Its an interesting look into human nature and quite valuable when considering how we should motivate, persuade, or navigate conflict within ourselves and as we interact with others.

 

Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller

As a product manager, you’re engaging with different audiences at different points in time and who each have different context and a unique perspective. The way you articulate pain points, opportunity, learnings, or results to your individual team that is in the trenches doing the work will be completely different than what you present to the broader product team, at an all-hands where people lack context, or at a leadership meeting.

You have to be able to step back and put yourself in their shoes and articulate answers to the following questions from your audience’s perspective: 1) What is this? 2) What’s in it for me or us? 3) What do I or we do next? Whether you’re articulating the value of your product to customers or communicating results with the team, you must craft the message you’re delivering.

While some might claim these skills are only relevant to product marketing, I would strongly disagree. Product management will be a struggle if you don’t already have or aren’t committed to developing communication skills in the top 10 percent.

The heart of Building a StoryBrand is about clarifying and simplifying your message. Miller presents his strategy in a seven-point framework that forms the foundation of all great stories. You’ll get the most value out of this book if you follow (and actually complete) the exercises, chapter by chapter. It will force you to consider how to craft a message in a way that strikes a chord with the intended audience.

 

Books on Culture, Teamwork, and Ownership

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

At their core, product managers are problem-solvers collaborating on teams of smart creatives who have honed skills in their own disciplines, specifically engineering and design.

The best product managers know that their team is far more valuable than any single idea. It’s your job to enable people to do their best work and provide creative freedom by emphasizing trust, experimentation, and depth. You have an opportunity to inspire people by aligning the team around a compelling vision and guiding principle, rather than obsessing over a specific feature set.

In this book, Catmull discusses the evolution of Pixar Animation Studios, including the philosophies and strategies that established them as a creative force. Most notably, the team at Pixar embraces the years of ambiguity inherent to the creative process as a story evolves into its own. Instead of becoming attached to a single storyline or character, they seek out a deep truth at the core of the film — the guiding principle — and craft the story around that.

Catmull also emphasizes the role of leadership in cultivating creativity. It starts with loosening your grip, accepting risk, trusting your people, and giving them space to do what they do best.

There are so many parallels between product management and the storytellers at Pixar you could almost consider this a product-specific book. Overall, it’s one of the best modern examples of the impact that comes from harnessing creativity and building a culture where the creative process can thrive.

 

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

If there’s one thing that sets apart novice product managers from the best, it is ownership. That means accepting total responsibility.

Great product managers absorb the blame and own what theyre able to — they don’t shy away from challenging problems. Instead, they dig in. And when missteps are inevitably made, they learn and reflect on what they could have done better. This helps to create more productive discussion and allows you to grow as a leader by focusing on what you could have done differently to better anticipate, prepare, or empower your team.

In Extreme Ownership, Willink and Babin, two former Navy SEALs, recall their time leading a special operation unit in the Iraq War. Each chapter highlights one of their leadership principles in action before relating it back to the business world.

I found the most relevant section to be on the laws of combat: cover and move, simplify, prioritize and execute, and decentralize command. If you want to win, teams must not only know what to do, but they must also know why. As a leader, your job is to ask questions until you understand why.

There are also great lessons in empowering yourself by accepting total responsibility, no matter your position, and the importance of being aggressive, but not overbearing.

 

Endurance: Shackletons Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

No matter how you slice it, product managers are leaders within their organization. People look to you for vision, strategy, conviction, and the why. Those you’re working to influence, however, often don’t report to you. As such, it would greatly benefit you to study some of the best leaders in history to learn which principles they called into action to be effective when the going gets tough.

Endurance not only highlights the leadership of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in dire circumstances, but it’s also a great resource on how to motivate and engage different personalities, build morale, and adapt to ever-changing environmental conditions.

Lansing documents Shackleton’s failed voyage to cross Antarctica from west to east. Along the way, Shackleton demonstrates the importance of operating with conviction and never allowing ambiguity or indecisiveness to linger for too long. His example also reveals why boredom is a fiercer foe than hardship, why speed often beats preparedness, and other key lessons in resourcefulness that directly translate to product management.

 

Books on Mental Models and Better Decision-Making

The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts by Rhiannon Beaubien & Shane Parrish

If you’re able to see things through different lenses, you improve your rationality and the quality of your decisions. This helps you avoid catastrophic decisions, learn quickly, evaluate what’s worth building, and determine what’s worth scrapping.

The Great Mental Models Volume 1 presents nine foundational mental models and champions a multidisciplinary approach to help broaden your perspective and make better decisions. It emphasizes that these mental models help us overcome three main barriers to effective decision-making — not having the right vantage point, ego-induced denial, and distance from the consequences of our decisions.

So for any product manager wanting to improve the quality of their decision-making, the mental models listed in this book are critical tools.

 

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

As a product manager, you need the ability to appreciate and consider the interconnected whole, not just the single product area that you’re responsible for in isolation. This starts by asking “what if” questions about future behavior to consider the range of potential scenarios that are likely to unfold.

Resilience and lasting products are born not only from an appreciation for the interconnected whole and the complexity inherent in a given system, but also an ability to let go, evolve, and adapt knowing you can’t perfectly plan for every scenario you face — resourcefulness matters.

Meadows emphasizes systems thinking as the ability to step back and appreciate the complexity of the interconnected whole. She digs into the key elements of resilient systems, which include feedback loops, self-organization, experimentation, and alignment. The benefit of systems thinking is that it helps you avoid isolated, shallow decision-making. With this comes a greater appreciation for the complexity of large systems, their connections, and a willingness to redesign them, when needed.

This is a foundational book for product managers who want to improve their ability to better evaluate complex problems and develop into a more strategic thinker.

 

Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

At your core, you are a doer, a builder, a creator. The best product managers know that if you can’t put your soul into something, you should leave it for someone else.

If you’re transferring the risk to others, deflecting blame, or refusing to stick around to face the consequences of your actions, you’re taking the easy way out. Great product managers find solace in the fact that, even in their failures, the credit belongs to the man in the arena.

In this book, Taleb challenges standard conventions and long-held beliefs about a range of topics including uncertainty, symmetry, risk sharing, and rationality in complex systems. Having your “skin in the game” means having exposure to the real world and paying a price for consequences, good or bad. He explains that it’s necessary for fairness, commercial efficiency, and risk management. But most importantly, it’s necessary to understand the world.

Taleb digs into real-world applications of his ideas and explains important heuristics, giving plenty of frameworks that lend themselves well to product management.

 

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

If you want to make a meaningful difference in the products you create, you have to be able to suffer. This means sticking it out when things aren’t going perfectly — conflict with stakeholders, an early version of your product fails, missteps during delivery, or any other number of obstacles.

The ability to reframe each challenge as an opportunity for growth is the hallmark of a top performer. Even the best at their craft experience failures. To create something from nothing requires endurance. Some days your biggest accomplishment will be finding a way to show up and chip away at the problem in front of you. Sustaining this for the years it takes to create something great requires a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, failure is any type of setback. In a growth mindset, failure is not growing.

Mindset is a foundational book that I wish I would have read in college or at the start of my career. As Dweck discusses a fixed versus growth mindset, the biggest difference is revealed not when things are going well, but when coping with failure.

A growth mindset is about building resilience and belief in change. Your skills and abilities can be developed. This allows you to embrace and enjoy the process that is learning, rather than seeking immediate gratification or giving up. The earlier you’re able to read this, the better it will help shift your outlook.

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This is an adaptation of a post first published on alexjhughes.com.

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