When most people talk about “vision” they’re evoking a concept of long-term planning, setting big and brash goals that you might or might not achieve, but which set a “north star” by which you can plot the course of your product and company. And while that’s an extremely valuable use of the term, I’ve recently been thinking that having a “vision” doesn’t always have to be a 5-year plan, but can be a 5-minute plan and be equally effective. In recent discussions with some fellow product managers, I’ve come to believe that we actually do use shorter-term visions regularly, but we talk about it in a variety of different terms. And when we do, we provide a similar “north star” effect to the people with whom we work on a daily basis — we allow them to chart the course to do more than they might have if we just told them what to do, and not where to go.
As Product Managers, we’re called on a lot to weigh in on questions, considerations, and issues related to our market, our customers, and our products. And we’re often pressured to provide opinions either with or without sufficient data to feel entirely comfortable about drawing conclusions that we know people will rely on and act on — regardless of how carefully we couch our words. It’s par for the course, to some extent, but the more prevalent such requests become, the more we might begin to lose sight of the hazards of engaging in such speculation, and start to leap to our own conclusions without doing our due diligence, even when we do have the time to do so. After all, if we’re truly experts on our market, customers, and products, then we have license to make such gut decisions and skimp on the data collection. WRONG. Part of our job, indeed our necessary role in the organization, is to push for truly data-guided and data-driven decisions — especially when the conclusion isn’t crystal clear (and often when it is). We need to be comfortable stopping the train, or at least slowing it a bit, to do some basic fact-checking before we make decisions that can literally affect the lives and livelihoods of our team members. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to understand when we’re stepping out of our “known knowns” and into the territory of “known unknowns” (to blithely steal a classic from Donald Rumsfeld).
One of Amazon’s prized leadership principles is “Be right, a lot.” And we should certainly strive for that as Product Managers, no matter what company we work for, or what product we’re working on. But there’s a corollary to that statement that’s equally important — that you’re not going to be right all the time. And that’s a good thing, believe it or not. Making mistakes is part of the game that we play on a daily basis, and it’s only through making these mistakes that we learn, we grow, and we understand that we’re willing to take the chances needed to truly innovate! If you’re not wrong at least part of the time, you’re either a certifiable genius who outranks even the Elon Musks and Bill Gates of the world — or you’re not truly taking chances.
There’s a tool in the Scrum toolbelt that is so utterly critical to success yet so fundamentally misunderstood by far too many development teams, Scrum Masters, and Product Owners. I’m talking, of course, about the Sprint Retrospective. I’ve seen it time and again, teams that are able to hit all the right notes in their standups, reviews, and planning sessions — but who wind up botching their Retrospectives in such a horrible fashion that they miss out on the single most important part of agile product development, continuous improvement. Certainly, it’s never fun to take time out of our day to look back and discuss what went wrong in the past two weeks — much less try to come up with new things to try on a sprint-by-sprint basis. But it’s the single most important part of the culture that we’re trying to build — the culture of agility, of adjusting, of improving…of change.
One of the many challenges that Product Managers face in trying to move organizations toward a more agile approach to product development is that some stakeholders simply don’t see the value in the shift. They believe that, since their way has worked for them for so long that there’s no need to change — after all, it can’t be broken if it works, right? But the simple fact is, the bad old ways of product development are dying, as markets and customers move faster and have more options available to them to solve their problems every single day. There’s not a single industry that isn’t facing high-investment newcomers who are able to move fast and adjust — and leave they’re slow-moving, waterfall-based competition in the dust.
A couple years ago I ran across a blog post by Paul Jackson where he mentioned in passing the idea of a tension between “default ship” cultures in relation to corporations versus startups. For some reason, those two ends of a spectrum have stuck with me ever since, and after struggling with some culture change in my day-to-day job recently, I thought that it was an interesting subject that deserved a little more attention and dissection. Because, even though Paul positioned it as a startup v. corporate culture issue, my feeling is that it goes much deeper than that and is a topic that every Product Manager should be aware of and have their eyes out for — you never know when the “default delay” police will come knocking on your product’s door…
Let’s face it, technical debt is something that every Product Manager has to deal with on a constant basis — whether it’s making snap decisions that unblock your team so that they can keep working, short-cutting an ideal architectural solution because you have time-to-market pressures, or deciding to put off working on bugs found after a story’s been closed. While the common wisdom may be that you should never take on technical debt, the real world intrudes on such a fantasy each and every day, and if we don’t want to wind up in a death march that never sees the light of day, sometimes we have to make the choice to sacrifice some long-term stability in exchange for short-term gains. But how do you determine when there’s too much technical debt, or when the specific item of debt is too much to bear? That’s what we’re going to discuss today…