PRODUCTHEAD: Training wheels and learned helplessness

PRODUCTHEAD: Training wheels and learned helplessness

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

subterranean homesick product #

every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


Motivation comes from making progress in meaningful work

A mission-focused team tackling poorly understood problems may appear unproductive to outsiders

It is everyone’s responsibility to act upon negative behaviour / thinking, but without assigning blame

Even in the most controversial negotiations, the other party is just like you and aims to walk away happy


I’m often introducing new skills and concepts to the people I work with, so I try to keep in mind what level of capability people have and adapt my coaching style accordingly. For this edition of PRODUCTHEAD, I wanted to share with you a few examples of what this looks like in practice.

User interviews for discovery #

One team I’m working with is beginning discovery in earnest. For the last few years they’ve been working mainly on incremental updates and bug fixes to existing products. Discovery leading to new product ideas has been happening to a certain extent, but conducted by a single person outside the product team, and on a somewhat sporadic basis.

My goal is to help the product team increase the flow of user and market research into the organisation (in order to reduce uncertainty and guesswork), with more of a focus on opportunities aligned to the corporate strategy.

Early in discovery, when you’re still figuring out what you don’t know as much as what questions you should be asking instead, a common technique is to have open-ended conversations with the people you currently believe to be your users.

You might believe there’s an opportunity to improve how they do a particular activity, so you’re seeking to find out how lots of users do it, and whether there are some problems they share in common that your organisation may be able to help with.

To some people, these kinds of user interviews come as second nature. For others unfamiliar with the practice, they can be daunting. Typical questions they ask:

  • How do I find people to talk to?
  • What kind of questions should I ask?
  • How do I get the conversation to flow naturally?
  • What does a good conversation look like?
  • What do I do with all the unstructured information I’ve gathered?
  • What does it all mean?
  • What do I do next?

I recognise that the individuals asking these questions may not have any direct experience of conducting this kind of user research, so I start with the basics: why we’re doing it, what we hope to learn, how we do it. Then we practice by interviewing each other with me coaching them. This a safe space for them to make mistakes, a bit like having training wheels on your bicycle when learning to ride for the first time.

Once we’ve built up some confidence, I recommend they set up conversations with friendly contacts who’ll be easier to talk to. We review how they felt the conversation went, and any ways they feel they could improve their technique for next time.

Then they move on to interviewing more and more users, and we can start to work on how to analyse their conversation transcripts and notes, and identify any points of interest that may be worth delving into with subsequent participants.

For this new skill, I’m working through the stages of learning with them: first I’m showing them what to do in a more directive manner; then I’m helping them to do it for themselves in a safe space; then they do it for themselves with the training wheels off; then they’re able to apply the skill unaided and critique their own approach. Then we rinse and repeat with the next adjacent skill they need to learn.

Refusing to take off the training wheels #

Where I live, there are plenty of families with young kids, so it’s common to see mums and dads teaching their kids to ride a pedal bike for the first time.

Some take the approach of putting training wheels on the kid’s bike, so that they can learn to ride without having to worry about falling over sideways.

Others start their kid off on a balance bike — a light, push-along bike with no pedals and no training wheels — so the kid can gradually get used to finding their balance on two wheels before moving onto a bigger bicycle with pedals.

Both approaches work fine in the long-run. Perhaps you learned to ride like this.

Sometimes I see overprotective parents who are so afraid of their kid falling off their bike, that they never take the training wheels off. Nobody wants to see a kid hurt themselves, so it’s coming a place of good intention.

The thing is, the training wheels are now hindering the kid’s progress. As the kid gets better at riding, they’ll want to go faster. But the training wheels prevent the bike from leaning over naturally when cornering, which makes it harder to ride the bike at speed, and actually makes it more likely they’ll fall off (but now at greater speed). There’s a good Veritasium episode that illustrates this perfectly.

I sometimes see something similar happening in teams. For one reason or another, the manager is stuck in ‘supporting’ mode, forcing an individual or team to keep the ‘training wheels’ on. You see this when the manager is reluctant to let go and insists on being heavily involved with a task that the team or individual is perfectly capable of doing unassisted.

It may be coming from a place of good intention, but being overprotective in this way comes across as micro-managing. Moreover, it’s hindering the individual or team from progressing to the next stage of learning.

There are lots of reasons why the manager might be acting in this way. It could be that they’re themselves under pressure from their higher-ups and can’t risk the team making a mistake. The manager’s lack of psychological safety (justified or otherwise) is being passed down to their own team.

Another common reason is the manager’s lack of trust in the team. In my edition of PRODUCTHEAD on this topic, there are three ways to lose trust: communicating poorly or being misleading; not doing what you said you’d do; and failing to demonstrate you can do the task well (communication, contract and competence).

If the team or individual is still doing any of these three things, then it’s reasonable for the manager to not have trust yet and to continue coaching or providing support. Otherwise the manager should step back and trust the team to get on with the task.

When a manager is stuck in ‘supporting’ mode for too long without justification, this can have a secondary effect on the team: learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness #

Going back to learning to ride a bike, sometimes a kid can become overly reliant on the training wheels. Even though they can balance fine and rarely need to actually lean on the training wheels for support, when the parent attempts to take the training wheels off, all their confidence vanishes and they refuse to ride without them.

At some of the companies I’ve worked with, I’ve encountered product delivery teams that have been working in a psychologically unsafe environment for so long that they actively resist any attempt to change the way they work for fear of recriminations.

“In psychology, learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available.”

Learned helplessness: Examples, symptoms, and treatment’, Jayne Leonard, Medical News Today (24 August 2022, retrieved 16 September 2023)

When teams or individuals remain in a state of distrust by their managers for too long a period, they can start to exhibit this behaviour. It simply becomes safer and easier to be spoon-fed tasks and to do exactly what they’re told, no more and no less. They lack any desire to innovate or take more control over what they’re doing, even if they’re perfectly capable of doing the task unaided.

The manager and team reach a kind of equilibrium, even though the situation is suboptimal: the manager feels they’re still ‘helping’ the team by micro-managing, and the team has learned that playing along is the path of least resistance. The manager therefore feels justified in continuing to micro-manage, and so the situation persists.

Now when a new manager comes along, who recognises that the team or individual is perfectly capable of performing the task unaided, they stop micro-managing. But by now behaviour of the team or individual is so engrained that they have no motivation to perform the task without being micro-managed. They’ve grown so used to being spoon-fed that they’ve lost any sense of control over their own actions.

To get out of this state of learned helplessness, the team or individual needs to relearn that they can have control or agency over their work. It takes time, persistence and requires the right kind of support — it’s not going to be an overnight change.

You, as their product manager (or line manager) can help them. You can do this by establishing and defending their psychological safety. This can mean acting as a shield when the team or individual is under attack. They need the space to start doing things differently and being accountable for their own actions, all without fear of recrimination from higher-ups for doing “the wrong thing”.

If you can help them to start making progress again (and recognise they’re doing so), they’ll begin to feel more in control of their own destiny again, which is a step on the path to defeating learned helplessness.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

The power of small wins

What is the best way to motivate employees to do creative work? Help them take a step forward every day. In an analysis of knowledge workers’ diaries, the authors found that nothing contributed more to a positive inner work life (the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that is critical to performance) than making progress in meaningful work.

Which actions support progress and which have the opposite effect?

[Teresa M. Amabile & Steven J. Kramer / Harvard Business Review]

Three product teams

This post will explore three popular models for product teams.

  • Sprint, Story, and Backlog-Centric
  • Team and Mission-Centric
  • Engineer-Centric (with Rockstar PMs)

The pros and cons of different team models

[John Cutler / The Beautiful Mess]

Improve creativity by overcoming learned helplessness

Learned helplessness kills creativity and decimates teams. What do we know about it? And how can we turn it around?

What are the things you can and can’t control?

[Kevin Aguesseau / Medium]

The influence of psychological safety on product management

Psychological safety has recently become one of the buzzwords in many workplaces. Many leaders might understand its importance but they often misunderstand what exactly it means and how to establish it.

Swap blame for curiosity

[Sebastian Straube / Mind The Product]

recent posts

Force multipliers

Recently I was explaining to a client why I focus my efforts on finding “force multipliers”. These are what I call activities that allow us to extract multiple benefits from a single piece of work. You could think of it a little like a workplace fusion reaction, where the output ends up far greater than the input effort.

Getting more out than you put in

[I Manage Products]

How to sharpen up your vision and strategy

When the vision and strategy are focused and clear, they allow product managers to prioritise and filter the possible options for their products more easily.

Use these straightforward questions and worked examples

[I Manage Products]

Always have a plan B

Have you ever wondered why product managers say “it depends” quite so often?

Always seeking the best possible compromise

[I Manage Products]

can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

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Helping people build better products, more successfully, since 2012.

PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from industrial machines in a pristine workshop.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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