People, Strategy

Escape the ‘How’ prison with ‘What and why’


The motivation to write this post came from a great, raw, uncut interview with Steve Jobs, the then CEO of NeXT Computer, in 1990. Among many other insights, he recalls a thought that crossed his mind when he gave Sean Lennon a Macintosh as a birthday present, “Older people want to know how it does what it does but the young people just want to know what it can do”.

There comes a time in every product and industry’s history when serving the expert customer imprisons the product team into a cycle of ‘how’. The Product Managers respectfully ask folks ‘how’ something should work, implement things to comply with what they heard and then spend their days explaining ‘how’ things work in order to convince the expert to buy the new and improved product.

Of course, the inherent problem with this scenario is that in any sizable community, one will get a different answer to the ‘how’ question from every single expert user. So the final implementation and explanation of ‘how’ the product/feature works will be a compromise that satisfies noone completely and disappoints everyone slightly. The hope then is that one is able to manage the compromises effectively enough for the majority to still buy the product. In essence, one becomes a Compromise Manager instead of a Product Manager. A quick clarification at this point – obviously all complex projects require smart trade-offs to ensure maximum value is delivered with the time and resources at hand. The compromises that I write about here are about finding the least common denominator among many different implementation options, ending up with an insipid experience for all.

Now consider the scenario where the Product Manager reaches out to not only the current user but also the new user and the potential users and asks them what they would like to do and why (think outcomes and results not product features). In this scenario, there is freedom – freedom to implement the solution however one sees fit while making sure that the users can do what they want to do painlessly. Of course, the implementation in this case takes a lot of hard thinking as well as hard work because the Product Managers have to chart their own course. However, at the end of the day, they can then sell the product by talking about what all it can do and not ‘how’ it does it.

If these are the primary options, then why is it that Product Managers and product organizations choose the route of ‘how’ – why is it that so many wantonly imprison themselves in these user-generated courses of action that are guaranteed to produce unsavory compromises and ho-hum results?

You tell me…

P.S. – Steve Jobs… RIP, your biggest gift to the tech community is your way of thinking and yes, your products, they’re awesome too.
People

Agatha Christie – Murder, She Sold – Two Billion and Counting


Over the past week, I have been mulling over a post by Scott Anthony that in innovation, there are no points for difficulty, it’s all about results. So I went looking for other lines of work where it’s all about success and not effort. One profession that came to mind, is writing; it does not matter how many books an author writes, what matters is that they come up with a bestseller every once in a while.

Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap by http://www.flickr.com/photos/aroberts

So I looked at great authors in history and found one that has sold over 2 billion copies in over 45 languages. Her success, in sheer numbers of books sold, is beaten only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I’m talking about Agatha Christie, ‘The Queen of Crime’, the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Agatha Christie’s products, her 80 novels and several plays, are prime examples of the buy, use, love ethos. So, as always, I had to investigate her life and work to see if there were lessons for Product Managers like me who are striving to create their own bestsellers.

  1. Play to a big audience: Over the years, Agatha Christie’s style of writing has come under criticism for being… sub-literary. However, I believe it is this very style that underpins Christie’s wide appeal, wrapping universal themes (murder and intrigue) in heart-stopping plot twists using simple, approachable language.  Her commitment to her style and her subsequent commercial success is an important example for Product Managers. All PMs seek lucrative problems (many potential paying customers) to solve but, we can all recall products that amazed the experts and underwhelmed the actual customers. To emulate Agatha Christie’s success, PMs must ignore the ivory tower long enough to seek, find and understand the largest possible market. And, with market success, the ivory tower does eventually come around.
  2. The solution must be innovative not the problem: Agatha Christie’s novels were formulaic whodunits centered around a murder in parochial settings; typical for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The basic structure of the stories was pretty consistent, however, she delivered each story with an uncanny finesse. Christie’s ability to create magic while staying within the bounds of a genre hold great insights for a Product Manager. Most PMs, who spend enough time listening to customers without prejudice (focusing on the ‘whys’ not the ‘whats’), stumble upon a familiar set of problems and needs. The challenge then, is to create a solution that meets these needs in new and innovative ways without being too alien and unfamiliar to the customer. Let’s not conjure up innovative solutions to innovative (read irrelevant) problems that never get off the ground.
  3. Creation is a process of discovery: Writing books seems like abstract, creative work that can only be done by uniquely gifted individuals who are wellsprings for fully-formed masterpieces. At least in Agatha Christie’s case, this is anything but true; the recent discovery of her secret notebooks reveals her non-linear process of writing. She used her deep understanding of the readers’ state of mind to iteratively refine her work till it was ready to publish. In the technology and software world, there is similar mythology that some people just ‘get it’ and can create market-dominating products through the power of sheer genius. Studying Christie’s process makes it pretty clear that, in most situations, the winning solution lies amidst a myriad sub-optimal options. The only way to discover the winning solution is having many possible approaches and then weeding through them with an intimate understanding of the problem, the customers and the market environment.

I am intrigued by the parallels between the world of writing and the world of innovation; including the low success rates in both fields. Agatha Christie’s life and work reiterates a recent post by Vijay Govindarajan, “Innovation is not creativity” – innovation is creativity multiplied by execution. Her success is testament to her ability to consistently execute; here’s hoping we can bring that execution excellence to our work.