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Bringing Mindfulness to Product Management

As the popularity of product managers has increased, so too has the responsibility they must take for their creations, says MMM and EDI adjunct lecturer Mike Edmonds.

Mike EdmondsTake a few seconds and think about the number of digital devices or applications that you use on a daily basis, from the smartphone in your pocket to the Amazon Alexa software connected to devices around your house. How many of them existed 10 years ago? How about 20 years ago? How many of them make your life better?

This last question is one that weighs on Mike Edmonds, Chief Experience Officer at Moonshot by Pactera EDGE and adjunct lecturer for Northwestern Engineering's MMM and Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) programs. 

"Two decades of rapid technology growth have generated enormous physical and digital clutter, distracting our time and attention away from what really matters," he said. "As product managers, it is our duty to not fill the world with more clutter, but to create products, services, and experiences that provide fulfillment for individuals and communities." 

The recent rise of technology has also spawned an influx of interest in product management. What started as a role primarily in big tech companies has spread across all types of industries and from Fortune 500 companies to startups. That development has also led to an evolution of what is expected out of product managers, from being able to execute as quickly and flawlessly as possible to now being expected to embrace a sense of mindfulness and social responsibility for the products they bring into the world.

Edmonds created the Mindful Product Management course as a way to prepare students for what he sees as this new reality for the field. While most business school product management courses focus on the fundamentals, such as learning about product requirement documents, roadmaps, and personas, this course blends mindfulness with design thinking, lean startup, and agile philosophies to create a cohesive set of principles and tactics that span product discovery and delivery. 

"Product managers should hold themselves to a higher standard," Edmonds said. "They should be connecting the purpose of their product to actually improving the lives of the people they are trying to serve, and I believe mindfulness is the foundation upon which modern product managers are able to achieve that." 

To Edmonds, mindfulness takes on multiple forms. Being mindful means being cognizant of your own attitudes and how the emotions you bring to a conversation can influence the outcome of that conversation. Being mindful also allows you to be more empathetic toward the needs of your user or customer.

Students who took the course in fall quarter were tasked with applying the frameworks and methodologies they learned in class to a client project for UNICEF. Traditionally, the humanitarian aid organization engaged with donors through in-person experiences, such as galas, but that changed due to COVID-19. UNICEF challenged students to reimagine the organization's experiences.  

The class was split into 14 different teams and each pitched to a handful of UNICEF board members and representatives. Edmonds was blown away by the innovative solutions the team proposed. Students applied design thinking and human-centered design into their solutions through a process called the design sprint. Pioneered by leaders at Google Ventures, a design sprint is a four- to five-day process that helps teams achieve focus, co-create solutions, and develop a realistic prototype. This design-thinking recipe epitomizes human-centricity — the hallmark of the MMM program — as it embraces co-creative design, rapid prototyping, and user validation.

"What I loved seeing was how creative students were in applying the key concepts of the course to the challenges and opportunities facing UNICEF,” he said. "Learn by doing is a key pillar of the course. What better way to embrace mindful product management than through a collaboration with an amazing organization like UNICEF.”

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