Almost all great product talks emphasize having a clear vision for the product, align it with the company’s vision, organize work in themes, come up with a roadmap & define success metrics.
Each time you listen to these talks you get very inspired and when you go into work the next day you have a deflating feeling and its unfortunately back to business as usual!
Founders at these companies have built customers from scratch one at a time, they viscerally know that to acquire customers you need to listen to their needs. Therefore, they enforce this culture — Amazon has the famous six-page document before you begin a project, at Facebook you have to recruit a team to work on your idea and if you can’t you have no product to build. Uber and Airbnb are built with data infrastructure and analytics built into the fabric of the company. (Watch this great talk about the Data Infrastructure and teams at Airbnb)
The challenge at non-rocketship companies is that the middle managers (VP, Directors) know customer acquisition and product discovery only in theory but most have never felt the pain of losing a customer (and therefore their company and livelihood) because of poor retention. Analytics is an afterthought in most product launches and even if it does exist its piecemeal or different analytics systems report different numbers, data pipelines are delayed by days if not weeks…
It is for this reason that Marissa Mayer’s at Yahoo acquired lots of startups she wanted to change the culture by embedding founders and early employees at all levels of the organization. It is also the reason that startup founders even ones that didn’t make it big, get hired as Directors or VP’s at large companies.
Bottom up product discovery is risky and time consuming. Middle managers default to the the easier way to build a new business – Sell existing customers a new gizmo. There is also engineering inertia you cannot ask engineers to take a pause while you figure out the next idea.
“Big companies stop being creative because, in large part, their decision-making processes become slower and more drawn out as they scale. Caution creeps in, and people are less likely to move quickly or place risky bets.” Jeff Bezos, in his annual shareholder letter, 2015.
Internally the strategy is so obvious, even when its ill-defined and the need to execute so critical that any conversation around defining the vision and time spent in product discovery creates the perception that the PM is either an obstructionist or doesn’t get it! This is especially true when dealing PM’s are dealing with technical debt initiatives.
Is there a way forward? Here’s my take:
- Pick the right size company
- Be Prepared with data
- Bifurcate the development process
Pick the right size company
There are five categories of companies:
- Pre-Seed — Less than 10 people — here the CEO is the PM for the company, don’t join if you want to do strategy work; Great for choatic execution
- Seed Stage — Less than 100 people — Still the founding team is the PM and execution is the main reason to hire PM’s.
- Pre-Scale — Less than 500 people — Very heavy on execution but some product areas do need product discovery and vision.
- At Scale — If its a unicorn, with customer centric culture great — if not its harder.
- Really Big Companies …this is where most of the challenges are with middle management and the culture of making safe bets. In other words the classic Innovators Dilemma. Most companies realize that they want to make decisions quickly but it just takes some more time than others. You need to find the teams that are moving fast.
Be Prepared with Data
- I’ve written about how to get started with data in another blog “Your daily data squat”
Bifurcate the development process
Marty Cagan and John Patton have written an excellent post on Dual Track Agile that our team implemented at Adobe. Using it we built out the most successful personalization infrastructure that continues to power the entire Creative Cloud. This approach takes care of engineering momentum because engineering teams can continue their work while PM’s are doing product discovery.
Once, you’ve been part of the product discovery and vision process similar to Rocketship company culture, you are ready to become an entrepreneur!