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Finding harmony among product chaos
9 principles that help me build better products
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Originally posted at albuquerque.io on Dec 17, 2017
Product is an evolving discipline. Platforms get bigger, experiences get more tailored, expectations increase. At the same time, product managers tend to be restless and constantly look for new, different, better ways of doing things.
This leads to a problem: it’s hard to stick to any format to build product. Every day someone writes on Medium about new ways of roadmapping, new tools, new processes, new frameworks. Meanwhile your company has new KPIs, new targets, new businesses. It seems it changes every quarter, every month, every day.
This doesn’t scale well, especially when teams get bigger or when less experienced people join the organisation. So there is a need to create someharmony among all this chaos.
Harmony through principles
Principles are supposed to be timeless(at any moment in time they can be applied as their inherent reasoning doesn’t wear off) and boundless(there is no form as pre-requisite or barrier to apply them). This means they can be applied in your process and have impact right away. Principles should also be open to interpretation (especially important as each PM is different and builds product their own way), but specific enough to still allow consistency across the team, a source of truth.
Quick caveat: it’s important to be self-aware and not sacrifice efficiency and pragmatism. Probably that urgent bug doesn’t need a philosophical assessment to be prioritised.
My own principles
1. Start with “why?”
Popularised by Simon Sinek, it’s the foundation of the PM role. When someone asks me “What should product managers do?” I generally default to “they should ask ‘why?‘ a lot”. Interacting with design, engineering, stakeholders, users, should mostly be around asking “why”. By starting with “why” you read between the lines, you dodge your users’ own solutions and understand their problem, drive, motivations and expectations.
2. Focus on what doesn’t change
Many attribute the success of Amazon, Jeff Bezos and it’s world-class execution to an obsessed following of this principle. By deeply understanding your users, business and market, you can build products and features around them. If you discover the “unchangeable fundamentals” (e.g.: customers wanting cheaper prices, faster service and more convenient access) you can more easily prioritise what drives real value.
3. What got you here doesn’t get you there
Marshall Goldsmith popularised this mindset as one of the key parts for people to be successful, but it also works when applied to features and products. Not questioning legacy decisions, past designs, unchanged flows, even v.1 features is a clear path to being outpaced by competition. Start by defining what “here” and “there” is (you can use metrics, KPI, feedback…) and ask what got you to where you are and what you should challenge, from a product perspective, to get to the next level.
4. Titles make managers, opinions make leaders
One of the most famous CEO mentors in the world, Bill Campbell, once said that “your title makes you a manager. Your people will decide if you’re a leader, and it’s up to you to live up to that”. PM’s must lead from the back, you are here to accelerate your team to get to the solution. Even though your title says you manage the product, your team’s opinion on how you include their participation defines your real ownership.
5. Change before you have to
Popularised by Jack Welch, and for me the greatest takeaway from his book «Winning», changing is one of the hardest things to do. Doing it before one really has to goes against our nature, but it’s the key for evolution. From a product perspective, it helps you get technical debt under control, re-assess roadmaps before it’s too late, shake structures and processes to be more efficient, re-scope before complexity creeps up, etc… Challenging the modus operandi will get you to better products.
6. It’s better 100 people that love you than 1000 than kind of like you
It’s not by accident that Airbnb grew to a $20B+ company (at the time of writing this): Brian Chesky, it’s CEO, is an adamant follower of this principle. Famously taught by Paul Graham during YC, it’s one of the best lessons any early founder should follow. From a product perspective, product love drives adoption, which drives retention, which drives people to love the product even more, and as consequence bring more people into it. It compounds, therefore grows exponentially. And as your users “spread” the love, you don’t need to build it over and over again, your users do it for you.
7. Do things that don’t scale
Another Paul Graham perl of wisdom, and honestly the most famous YC lesson, doing things that don’t scale became famous as the lean way for scrappy startups to find traction before they can afford it. I try to apply this principle around scopes and learning fast: keep things lean without trying to scale from day 1, make simpler scopes, rely more on people (your operations team for example) and excel sheets (honestly!) before automating most tasks. It’s not only for the sake of building less, but because you can learn more and faster by having human help early on.
8. Strong opinions, loosely held
Marc Andreessen, Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos often talk about how important it is to be strict on your vision but flexible on the details. This is not just while building companies or being a CEO; it also applies when building a product vision. Developing a mental model of the world, as well as its evolution for the next 5–10 years, makes your product decisions coherent, aligned and sensible. It’s your best weapon against making too many small effort/small impact features, cluttered roadmaps, shifting priorities etc. Meanwhile it grants you flexibilityon getting to this vision. You will find new ways to get there, learn new things every roadmap and your detailed plan should open to change. Be pragmatic above everything and focus on the end of the tunnel.
9. You fall to your highest level of preparation
This is one of the most memorable phrases of “Never split the difference”, a masterpiece in negotiation and psychology by Chris Voss, a former lead FBI negotiator. Negotiation is about gaining leverage by manipulating emotions, and the best way to achieve this is by developing a deep empathy with your counter-part. The critical path to empathy is awareness. But to be aware of all variables while negotiating, especially in high-stake environments, preparation is everything. The same applies in the day-to-day of building and managing product. Debating priorities, dealing with emotional stakeholders, reading in-between lines of user feedback, defending a case to grow the team, arguing against certain directions of management; the more prepared you are, the more likely you are to win.
Find your own principles
I designed my process to deal with the hardest parts of building products: dealing with stakeholders (#1), prioritising features and products (#2), evaluating success(#3), leading product teams(#4), managing tech debt and reassessing roadmaps and teams (#5), scoping and roadmapping (#6), doing user research and continuously learning (#7), developing a product vision and strategy (#8) and debating, making a case and defending the vision, team and roadmap (#9). But every PM is different, has their own mental models of how products should be built, and should design their own principles to help along the process.
As long as the end goal is met — building something that solves problems and people actually want- little else matters. Principles just help create harmony among chaos.