Product management success in the conceptual age

the matrix

The information age is ending and the conceptual age is beginning. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink proposes that six characteristics of right-brain thinking are key to success in the new economy. Nils Davis realizes that these characteristics are embodied by good product managers today. We will define the conceptual age, review the six characteristics, and see how this applies to product management.

What is the conceptual age?

The information age has put almost unlimited information at our fingertips. The problem is that the amount of information can be overwhelming.

In 2001, the amount of information was doubling every 2.5 years – by 2020 it will double every 73 days (per Tom Kelliher).

In the movie, The Matrix, the challenge wasn’t getting access to the information, it was interpreting it. Most of us can’t look at the raw data and see the patterns. The right sides of our brains deal with information and patterns, and the key to success in the future is to be able to absorb and process the information. From this information we develop concepts. We then share those concepts with others.

The use of concepts in communication will be critical, as it provides a simplified way for our listeners to absorb the information we share with them.

What are the key characteristics?

Defining the six aptitudes in a product-management context:

  • Empathy. Being able to approach the product/information/activity from the perspective of the user/listener/actor.
  • Meaning. How do our customers perceive our product – why is it relevant to them?
  • Story. Being able to tell a story about our product or about our users.
  • Symphony. The context, relevance, and big picture perspective. Where does our product fit into the big picture?
  • Design. Interaction design defines how our product is perceived and used.
  • Play. Fun is important

Additional thoughts on each aptitude as they apply to product management

The ability to perceive how our customers will use our software is important. We have to make sure that we don’t create the software that we want, but the software that they want. Understanding their problems is the first step to creating a great solution. We can document the customer’s problems in an MRD.


The relevance of our product to our customers is primarily a function of differentiation. Our customers will think about our product in the context of how it is different and better. Asking ourselves ‘What does this mean to our customers?‘ is a great question to help us focus on the differentiated innovations and ignore irrelevant innovations. Without differentiation, our product is perceived as yet-another-widget. Meaning can also be based upon value, or ROI. And ROI can drive prioritization decisions.


Being able to tell stories about our products is important for marketing and selling our software. Being able to tell stories about our users (or their personas) is a great technique to help us gain insight into how our users will perceive the product.


Context is everything. There is always a bigger picture. We need to understand where our product fits into the bigger picture. When empathizing, we develop an MRD that represents the problems and opportunities. Our understanding of the big picture helps us determine which problems should be addressed with our software. This ideation process drives the creation of a PRD from our MRD.


Alan Cooper has the best perspective we’ve found on design, in his most recent thinking about the role of interaction designer. The interaction designer combines an understanding of the users (empathy) with an appreciation of the value of a particular requirement (meaning) to create a compelling design.


Software needs to be rewarding to users. Those rewards are based upon the user’s personal goals (don’t feel stupid, spend less time on task X, etc). Take a look at the second diagram from this post on interaction design and structured requirements. Play is important, not just because its fun, but because it helps users master the software more quickly, turning the negative experiences into positive ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.