One of the defining aspects of my 2021 was being exposed to hundreds of teams from around the world. It was fun, but also very challenging. While increasing my ability to pattern match and offer plausible recommendations, I also realized just how vast this space is, and how little I ultimately know.
I started to realize that, myself included, some of the “voices” in the product world are also reasonably biased to something. We’re selling something, even if it is to ourselves.
To be of service to others, it is important to 1) realize this, 2) work through it, and 3) do our best to help others work through it.
“Product” (meant very broadly) draws on dozens, if not hundreds of traditions – from human factors to queueing theory to technology adoption models to socio-technical systems theory to operations research. Very few of these things are New, but none of them are complete or “theories of everything”.
In this messy world, there are also big variations when it comes to “experience profiles”. Some people have extremely deep experience in certain domains (e.g. B2C startups, or healthcare). Other people have broad (but not deep) experience doing many different jobs in a diverse set of contexts (domain/industry, company stage, organizational culture, etc.)
And different world-views, “politics”, motivations, needs, and sources of professional and self-identity.
A list of “first principles” would be a mile long.
When looking at why things are working (or not working) in organizations, we all have our explanation biases – leadership, organizational design, incentives, management, skills and experience, empowerment, complex adaptive systems, systems thinking, “mindset”, safety and resilience, diffusion of innovations, psychological safety, strategy, and more.
Mess, mess, mess.
Or at least some of it. With all sorts of wonderful ways to dance with it. When you start to see the mess for what it is, a lot of the contradictory bits of advice start to make more sense.
Just and Only
Why does any of this matter? Some stories:
“Missions Don’t Matter”
I remember a situation recently where I explained to a COO that the mission of their company wasn’t resonating with the team. He said, unflinchingly, that “company mission doesn’t really matter” and that “people stay because of their manager and salary”. He then listed a half-dozen examples from his undeniably successful – but homogenous – career to prove his point.
What struck me the most about this situation was his high degree of confidence AND lack of introspection and self-awareness. Another observation was just how uncomfortable this made me. Didn’t he realize that his outlook was likely becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as people who cared left, or gave up giving feedback?
“Testing is a Joke”
The debate is still probably going on, but I CCed one of the foremost testing experts in the world into a thread on TDD (test-driven development) on LinkedIn. To my amazement, the TDD advocate completely disregarded the thoughtful comments from this world-renowned expert (who happens to be very curious and open-minded, with breadth in experience).
Despite many efforts to meet somewhere in the middle (by the expert), the TDD zealot was unrelenting in his close-mindedness. Not even one “I’m curious about…” or “I may be lacking that context.” The irony? This basically proved the point of the testing expert that more diverse perspectives were needed to surface important problems. That one person couldn’t see it all.
Some shorter stories:
“I don’t care much for ‘user research’”
“I don’t know of a single successful organization where designers work that way!”
“A team working in an agile way doesn’t need managers!”
“They just don’t have good product leaders!”
“You never known until you get code into the customer's hands!”
“It is impossible to learn anything after you’ve shipped something!”
“Most developers don’t want to get involved in product stuff!”
“It is always a systems problem”
“Tickets need a directly responsible person”
“It is always an incentive matching problem!”
“Good PMs are extroverts”
“You just need to empower teams”
“We live in a complex world, you can’t rely on ANY forecasts”
“None of those practices can work at my company. They are only good for startups”
“We can’t hire good enough engineers. That explains everything”
“B2B marketing is a solved problem!”
“You just need to focus on delivering software each week and getting feedback!”
None. Always. Never. All. Any. Only. Everything. Solved Problem. Just. Big sweeping statements. Big sweeping explanations. From everyone – from the open-minded Agilists to the open-minded carrot-and-stick folks. When you pay attention, you start to notice how we draw so heavily from our experiences. And call that the “real world”.
The more consistent one's experiences, the more one believes they understand "the real world." The more insular one's experiences, the more consistent. "Real world" is merely a descriptive term people use for the stories they tell themselves about their own experiences.
Back to the Real World
As I mentioned in the introduction, 2021—due to sheer exposure—was a year that I started to question more and more of what I know, and expand my known unknowns. Sure, it became easier to point out patterns, but pointing out patterns is different from knowing.
You’re probably thinking I’ve gone off the “no objective reality” deep-end, but that is not where I am going at all.
There are objectively more skilled product leaders (especially when we take a context-specific perspective). There are teams that perform objectively better, organizations with higher levels of psychological safety, better/worse DevOps practices, and better/worse ways to approach product discovery. Given a situation, there are practices that have a much higher probability of causing disaster. And safer experiments.
Experience matters. So does leadership. So does “the system”. But so does luck, context, emergent properties, the parts of culture we can barely control, inertia, loops, etc.
What we could use more of is…humility, curiosity, and context. If we’re going to make progress on some of the wicked problems confronting us, we can’t go it alone.
Which brings me to the Messifesto
This was the list I wrote for myself for 2022. It may/may not be helpful to you.
Stay humble and curious. Listen. We may know a lot AND know very little
Take care of yourself. The mess is invigorating AND draining
Invite different perspectives and traditions. There is no one way to unravel the mess.
Elevate new perspectives. Pay particular attention to under-represented voices.
Share context whenever possible. Who, what, why, where, when.
Be willing to fight for what you believe. It is OK to have strong feelings about things
A final point on taking care of yourself. One by-product of trying to integrate different traditions is that you start get more and more triggered by people with an ostensibly “narrower” view (see my example of the COO). You have to get over this. You/we took this “burden” on. Yes #6 matters, but so does #2.
Have a great 2022.