An early wake up call in my product career was the stark reality of who makes product decisions within companies. Foolishly I believed that the strategy involved with launching a successful product starts and ends with product managers. Needless to say, 20-something year old me learned a few things about how companies operate very quickly.
Strategy is unequivocally the fun part of product management, but what most executives will never admit is that it is also the easy part. When something is fun, easy, and promises glory, there is absolutely no shortage of people willing to claw and grab at the opportunity to make a name for themselves. Young ambitious product managers will quickly find that their aspirations to steer a company will be reduced to a sandbox of things nobody else cares to bother with.
I originally found this to be a soul crushing reality, but things are not as bad as they may seem. Depending on one's organization the ability to take on more responsibility can either be earned or taken: the latter being achieved with the classic "ask for forgiveness instead of permission" mantra which I myself have preached for years. Either way, it is a good idea for any product professional to expand their abilities past what is fun and easy to what is unwanted and difficult.
Cooks In The Kitchen
On the list of top things that can destroy a product, 'too many cooks in the kitchen' is high up there.
When building usable products with exceptional UX it is common knowledge that less is more. Adding more features to a product creates a muddy user experience and only distracts users from the core functionality of the product, creating confusion and a nightmare of usability. Product managers understand this well, but the vast majority of stakeholders do not: as product managers, we must defend simplicity from the jaws of complexity. Unfortunately for us, complexity is the status quo in environments where members of a team look to toss in their two cents in an attempt to steer a product.
One of my old favorites detailing the dangers of design by committee is the story of the Pontiac Aztek. The Aztek was an attempt by GE to give users an equal voice in defining an end product in a manner which was intended to be design by committee. The result is history:
The result rolled off the assembly line in 2000: the Pontiac Aztek, considered by many to be one of the ugliest cars produced in decades and a flop from Day One.
When you're a product manager at a company shipping tech products, everybody wants your job... including the CEO. When everybody considers themselves to be an expert strategist, the worst thing a product person can do is add to the noise with additional ideas. Product managers must pick their words wisely when in such chaotic meetings, amongst many other things:
- Utilize inception. Outwardly attacking or shutting down the ideas of others directly never goes over well. Instead, it is best to use the passionate of people as the engine that will drive them to a solution: build on the ideas of others to shape them towards conclusions more likely to work.
- Learn when to be quiet. Sometimes the best thing to do in a highly energetic and stressed out setting is to let things pan out one way or another. People have the ability to correct themselves over time even if the starting point was farfetched.
- Maximize time away from meetings. A product manager should be able to achieve the most damage by fleshing out ideas away from others. No matter how great your idea sounds, chances are that others won't digest words well in the moment, and the result will seem combative.
- Use visuals to communicate. Wireframes and flowcharts are excellent ways to reduce the time between the proposal of an idea and the time it takes somebody to understand it. The longer this time is, the less likely it will be approved.
- Befriend analytics. Back up your assumptions and skepticism with data, if not to others than at least to yourself. Also allow development estimates and other metrics to make an argument for you.
- Don't speak for your team. Don't promise anything to anybody if you don't have a good understanding of the level of effort intended. Even experienced product managers make this mistake constantly, which is a great way to make your team hate you.
The Idea Bubble
Ideas are currently overvalued. As economic tech bubbles have come and gone, this discrepancy is a fossil of times which have already left us. A company which overemphasizes a PM's ability to strategize big-picture is a company behind the times of what is important.
A common phone call I'll get is an invitation to partner up as a cofounder to get a startup off the ground. Usually a personal connection, aspiring cofounders love the prospect of bringing on a partner to execute the technology side of their MVP (and foreseeable future) for 2% of their company. What a great idea, they figure, to allow somebody 2 whole percent of the next Facebook. From my perspective, this sounds a lot like executing 100% of the work for pennies on the dollar, all for the privilege of being let in on somebody else's idea. Average people, like companies, think ideas are what make or break companies alone.
Something I've done in job interviews past is get a feel for some of the longer term strategy thinking that a company is moving towards. Typically companies in the interview process are willing to give a few tidbits of information about their general funding and target verticals to demonstrate a general path for growth to candidates who may be interested in joining. With this information, it is very easy to predict some very key points about the entirely of a company's business plan:
- Which features or new products does this put on the company's roadmap?
- What new competitors is this company now slating themselves against?
- What are some of the challenges this company must now face as they enter new territory and potentially eat into a competitor's market share?
What I've found surprisingly is that it is very easy to guess these things correctly with little more background to the company, sometimes met with nervous responses as a company roadmap is slowly dissected. What does this ease tell us?
Big picture strategy is much more obvious and less complicated than we would otherwise assume.
There are of course a fair share of exceptions to this, but generally speaking the desires of organizations are very straightforward. Considering that all companies are looking to maximize profits and reduce costs, dissecting how they would do so from their current position is not one that takes deep understanding of the market or business itself. All consumers are human beings, which we also happen to be... as a human being, there is no secret sauce a company can withhold from you that you could not otherwise infer, as their product will ultimately be sold to people just like yourself.
To further demonstrate how ideas are overvalued, simply send some time in any brainstorming meeting about a product, and count how many ideas are repurposed versions of preexisting ideas which are currently live in the market. While I've found the notion that "there are no original ideas" a bit dark, there is compelling evidence in favor of this.
Second Place Always Wins
Hypotheticals aside, perhaps we should look to technology's most successful companies. Surely the behemoths which dominate our industry are truly original?
- Facebook was of course an evolution of many social networks which came before it in Friendster, MySpace, etc, and was an idea stolen from the Winklevoss twins as was decided by the court system. Facebook succeeded in how it executed this idea, but the concept itself was by no means novel.
- Google was one of countless search engines at the time of its inception, and became economically viable after the collapse of Yahoo! left the space wide open.
- Uber rose from a number of nearly identical apps which had been developed at the same time, and it seems as though their story has not yet reached an end. Uber's presence has not hindered the rise of Lyft, Fastn, Gett, and Juno. It is too early to tell, but there's a chance that Uber's own internal politics may pan very negatively.
- Snapchat is surely an example of a successful original idea with their Stories feature, right? Except for the part where Instagram blatantly ripped off the same idea, and the public did not seem to care as Snapchat's IPO resulted the most shorted stock in history. To this day articles are published praising the team which downright stole an original idea. Is no idea holy?
Truthfully, no. No idea is holy: what makes products successful is how a product is executed, not what the core idea is.
Execution Is Expensive
If ideas are cheap, the ability to execute is expensive by contrast.
Proponents of capitalism will argue you that a person's worth is reflected in what the market determines their compensation to be. Despite one's own idealogical beliefs, market rates are a good way to indicating which positions are in demand. This is easily achieved by looking at average salaries within a given field.
Unsurprisingly, those who are paid the most within technology companies are those with irreplaceable skills such as developers. Those who know how to carry out ideas will always be compensated at a higher rate than idea people. Despite what startups preach as their core identities, market rates tell a different story: that people who talk are common, and people who do are rare.
What I'm Personally Doing
I apologize if this seems to be a darker perspective to those aspiring to dream, but allow me to offer an alternative narrative. Simply because the trajectories of companies are fairly predictable should not discourage the notion of innovation- if anything, it affords us the ability to pave the way for advancements where others have turned a blind eye. Even if the entire payroll of your startup seems to be a part of the decision making process, I can guarantee you that most will overlook the pieces which make up the whole: a product is made up of features, and features are usually within a product manager's jurisdiction.
Product management remains an empowering profession to those who learn how to navigate political structures and understand people... users and stakeholders alike. I would not trade 8 years of product management for anything in the field, as I believe this field is the greatest way to understand the world to those who are willing.
On a personal note, I am taking a hiatus from traditional product management to pursue the technical side of application architecture for the foreseeable future. As some of the questions of product management are answered in what seems to be a new era, the traditional day-to-day of product management will shift to the side of defining process in product management and software teams alike. Regardless of what my title may be, I will always consider myself to be Toddzilla: Product Manager.