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The best panic attack I ever had

Exactly one year ago, I was having a panic attack in the restroom of a public library in Montreal.

It all started with a backlog…

Let me rewind a bit. I was in the process of interviewing for a product manager position with The Canadian Digital Service (CDS). I’d already passed the first two rounds, which involved sharing my CV and then having a phone call to assess some of my values and work experiences. And then, there I was at step three: the technical exercise.

I was asked to prioritize a backlog, which is a tool that product teams use as the single source of truth to monitor work in progress and what they need to work on next. I was completely focused on this exercise, trying to arrange a fake backlog for an imaginary product that was designed for the interview.

And yet, despite my preparation, there I was, locked in the bathroom of the library crying, incapable of producing a solution to the task at hand.

It was 5pm. The deadline to send my answers was at 7pm. I had two hours left.

(Spoiler alert: here I am, a product manager at CDS. This story has a happy ending.)

Fear of failure

I’ve worked with backlogs in previous jobs so I knew that if I became a CDS product manager, it would be a tool I’d use every day. So I should be able to do this exercise. I had to succeed. I needed to find the one right solution.

But I did not have one right solution. All I had were a lot of questions. And that was scary. I was afraid of failing. For many personal and professional reasons, I needed that job. My entire future seemed, at that very moment, tied to my ability to triage and refine those cards and columns.

With all that pressure, I gave up in that very library. I fully embraced my imminent failure. I did not fear a bad outcome anymore, because I’d already accepted it. The possibility of getting this job was already over for me, because I did not know the answer they wanted to hear.

The power in “I don’t know”

My fear was gone and my personal wellbeing was not on the line anymore. I could then very clearly perceive my answer: I.did.not.know.

So I wrote all my questions down: What was the product? Where did the need for it come from? What was the context of building the first features? What did the team need to be empowered to deliver? What was the technical legacy? These were the things that were missing for me to make informed decisions.

I imagined ways to find answers to those questions, and I created a plan to move forward in the face of uncertainty, prioritizing what needed to be answered and what unknowns we could work around.

That was how, in an hour, while accepting the possibility of failure, while sharing my imperfect answer, I did the work.

By letting go of the possible bad outcomes I was imagining, I threw myself into a safer space to think through the problems. It allowed me to produce an honest answer, which was: there was actually no good answer; only paths to try to get to it.

What I learned in that library

I’ve been product manager at CDS for eleven months now. I do work with trello backlogs every single day. Our team uses them to prioritize work to improve government services for people living in Canada.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that panic attack lately, and realized I learned something very valuable in that library:

Admitting the limitations of my knowledge was a crucial first step to discovering a (not the) solution to the problem. But to get there, I had to be comfortable with the possibility of failure.

If we only think about bad outcomes, we block our ability to make informed judgment calls. So now I make it a priority to always create a safe space for my team to express the limits of their knowledge, welcome “I don’t know”s in meetings, and allow people room to fail without blame. I truly feel like that will be the way we thrive and create paths to solutions together.

No one person alone is responsible to come up with the one right answer, because we are all human and we are limited, but we learn.

PS: Asking questions, saying when I don’t know something, and empowering others to try is actually my job now. And I love it.