Product-thinking helps us figure out the who, what, where, when, and why of change. It’s really people-thinking. It’s thinking about the fact that people find change uncomfortable, and groups of people find change particularly hard. Product-thinking helps us make the right change at the right time so our products and services become more valuable for our users and our organisation.
People talk about problems through solutions. When we fall in love with a solution we overlook its flaws and find it difficult to break up with it. Try and flip the description of a solution and use it as a chance to sketch a problem. Focusing on your users’ problems gives you the flexibility to make useful changes to your products and services. Don’t create a new product or service unless you understand what problem it solves for your users. Products and services often fail because they are solutions in search of a problem. It’s OK to have organisational goals as long as we understand that they’ll only be achieved when they also solve users’ problems. If we find a problem we need to find out if it’s urgent enough, pervasive enough, and valuable enough to be worth solving.
Time and money are precious. We should figure out how to do the least work possible to better help our users. Just enough is good enough. This helps us to make small changes, often. Change is scary. But small and simple changes are less scary than big changes (and they add up to big change over time).
Keeping things small and simple can help to avoid burnout. Some people get so focused on helping people and solving a big problem that it overwhelms them. Breaking it down into small chunks can help take the pressure off.
Simplicity is hard. People are more complicated than tools and technology. Don’t spend all your time building and ‘delivering’. In fact, don’t build or deliver anything until you’ve made time to think about the assumptions you’re making. And tested the riskiest assumptions, figured out what you’ve learned, and thought about what you need to change. This goes against our instincts. Convincing people who want to build something to slow down and think is hard. But we need time to think if we’re to change the right things at the right time.
A successful product or service needs to solve a valuable problem for its users. And it relies on strong partnerships, communication, onboarding, support desk, teams, tools, and technology. That’s a lot of things. Many organisations focus on one or two of these things and neglect the others. This distorts our product or service. We need to step outside our comfort zone and embrace the things we find daunting or interesting. They’re the things holding back our products and services.
The quicker we can make useful changes to our product or services, the more valuable they become. We need signals* to help us figure out what changes to make, and signals to figure out if the change has been useful. We should change as often as is useful, and aim to reduce the time it takes to make a change. Create signals that help you learn how your product or service is doing. Have as few as possible and learn from them. Use these signals to figure out the most useful, small change you can make. Create a signal so you know if that change has been useful. Move fast and mend things.
*This is often called being ‘data-driven’ but that’s only part of the story. Data doesn’t tell us anything unless we think about it and learn something from it. Then it becomes a signal. And data means more than numbers. Everything we collect is data, which includes feedback, reviews, interviews, etc.
Making changes requires us to align the needs and perspectives of lots of different people (users, individuals, teams, managers, partners, funders, etc). The need to align perspectives is frustrating. Someone often takes unilateral action and prioritises what works best from their perspective. A battle then ensues as everyone else does the same. The flip side of this is deciding on what to change by seeking consensus. MoSCoW is an example of this. It helps us to select the change that will be most acceptable to the people with the loudest voices. Neither approach creates great products and services. We need space where all perspectives can be shared. We need someone to listen to them all and look for value in the sweet spot where they align.
Everything we do is a change. And every change we make is a gamble. Choose your bets carefully. Only bet what you can afford to lose.
Prepare to change your point of view. A lot. People and organisations tell stories about themselves to win support, and that’s OK. It’s often crucial. But these stories are half-truths designed to get people’s interest. If we start to believe them ourselves then we create a reality distortion field that blocks change. Trust your colleagues and your users. Seek honest feedback, listen to it, and learn from it. Changing your point of view is hard. Helping others to change their point of view is even harder and takes time. But it’s a satisfying feeling and leads to better products and services.
Sometimes a product or service is not valuable. We must say ‘no’ to more work on it. And it must be ok for us to say ‘no’ to more work on it. Time and money are precious. We should save them for the best opportunities to help our users and our organisation.
Treat your users and colleagues with respect. Ask yourself two questions about your products and services:
Are we making life better for our users?
In solving a problem for users through our product or service, do we mess with problems being solved elsewhere in society?
I’ve noticed that people and organisations are interested in ‘product-thinking’. I’ve been asked to talk about product-thinking a few times and, if I’m honest, I don’t think I gave a good account of myself. I ended-up talking about the specialism of product management rather than ‘product-thinking’. And that’s because the phrase ‘product-thinking’ didn’t mean much to me.
Early in 2020 I had another opportunity to talk about ‘product-thinking’, this time at my local authority in Hackney. So, in the midst of parental leave and after 3-hours sleep, I had a crack at describing some benefits of product-thinking. But there was still something missing. So I spoke with my wife and said ‘I’m trying to describe some principles for that thing I do. Can I give you the quick, plain English version of what I’ve really done in each of my roles?’. Which I did. And what my wife said was ‘Oh, it sounds like people find change uncomfortable and you’ve helped them to change the things they need to change’. Spot-on.
The word ‘product’ is a red herring. I’ve never had a role where the thing we’ve built has been everything we needed for success. In every role there’s been something big behind the scenes that needed to be changed. And then after that, there’s been a need to make smaller and smaller changes, more and more frequently.
I realised that our organisations are often more work than the products and services we’re working on. My experiences from the last 15 years have led me to see that ‘product-thinking’ is really thinking about people and how we find change hard. It’s about the who, what, where, when, and (most importantly) why of change. And the benefit of thinking this way is that we make the right changes at the right time so that our products or services become more valuable for our users and our organisation.
I’m focusing on ‘product-thinking’ that can be done by anyone over ‘product management’ that is a specialist role. I want to be inclusive, not exclusive. I’ve tried to avoid jargon, methodologies, frameworks, or making assumptions about what people know already.
The intent of these principles is that they:
Help someone to make the right change at the right time without having to officially become a product manager
Help someone already bought-in to product-thinking to explain it to others
Help product managers explain what they do to others without resorting to jargon
Help product managers to think about the benefits of what they do; to realise that all those meetings they attend are important opportunities to make change happen; to describe the benefits of their role without having to use jargon (so they explain what they do to friends and family at a BBQ without people’s eyes glazing over :)
There are lots of principles out there already. I wondered whether I should promote existing principles instead? For example, there are the Government Design Principles. I looked at them again. They remain awesome and useful. And they are principles for design, which is arguably ‘the rendering of intent’. They don’t help us to set our intentions in the first place. These product-thinking principles help to choose the changes we want to make. Principles like the design principles help us to bring that change to life. I hope they’re complimentary.
I’ve not included links to related books, blog posts, etc, in this version of the principles but think they would be helpful in a future version
Finally, this is version one of these principles so I assume that they’re useful but wrong and will soon be better. I want to share them, talk about them, and get more insights from others.
I’d appreciate any feedback on these principles. I really mean that. I’m sharing them early, when I know they’re not ‘finished’, to get the benefit of the wisdom of others. And that’s you. Easiest ways to get in touch are probably email email@example.com or to say hello on Twitter or LinkedIn. I’ll take feedback however you’d like to share it but (if it helps) you could answer these questions:
what would you keep?
what would you change?
Thank you for subscribing to this series of emails on good product management and for reading this episode. If you’ve found it useful or interesting please consider sharing it with someone else and sticking around for the next episode where I’ll (probably) share my 15-year long journey to figure out what I’m doing as a product manager.
This series of emails will focus on good product management. I’ll talk about increasing the value of products that improve lives, where we measure value through how much we help people over how much profit we make. It’s likely that this will be of most interest to you if you’re working in a:
- Government department or agency
- Local Authority
- Social enterprise
- Non-Governmental Organisation.
I’ll publish a new episode whenever I’ve got something useful to say and keep quiet when I’ve not. I’d guess you can expect something every few weeks.
I’m Scott and I love products that improve lives. I’ve worked on products with a social mission for over 15 years in a mixture of public service, charity, non-profit, and commercial contexts. I’m currently the Head of Product for the Ministry of Justice. If you want to know more I have a personal website and a LinkedIn profile. You can speak with me on Twitter.
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