Apr 14

The Distance Between A Great Idea and “An Elegant, Really Beautiful Solution That Works”

An elegant handmade tool for making elegant handmade furniture (photo by Visitflanders, CC 2.0 licensed)

An elegant handmade tool for making elegant handmade furniture (photo by Visitflanders, CC 2.0 licensed)

One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. And that disease—I’ve seen other people get it, too—it’s the disease of thinking that a having a great idea is really 90 percent of the work. And if you just tell people, ‘here’s this great idea,’ then of course they can go off and make it happen. The problem with that is that there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between a having a great idea and having a great product.

The good stuff in product management happens when new concepts start to emerge as you work, based on or sparked from other ideas bashing together, and human insight, and touch and feel and a sense of elegance. Where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, lots of people think of product management as if simply having an idea is the hard part, and turning that idea into a product is just a simple process of A-to-B. Partly because that’s what they’ve experienced with other business processes, which are mostly just complicated – lots of moving parts, but fitting together in a well-understood way. This is not how good products arise – things that seem obvious at first turn out not to be, while things that seem hard at first often end up simple. Jobs understood this better than anyone, and he said so often.

When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop… But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.

I’m inspired every time I read this quote.

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Apr 14

Structured Vs. Unstructured – What PMs Can Learn From Mozart

Don’t be like this guy! (Image by Christina, CC 2.0 licensed)

There’s always a balance between structure and lack of structure. It plays out in every domain, and especially every creative domain. Structure can help us think, can help us remember (i.e., be an offboard memory), and can give us guidelines within which to be creative.

Consider the classical composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – each had a structure in which they composed, and part of their greatness was creating the greatest of works in that structure. The other part of their genius was in breaking the rules of those structures and extending the structures to accommodate new thinking and new avenues for creativity. We might not have had a Beethoven if Mozart had said “let there be no rules for music anymore!”

But, on the other hand, we wouldn’t have had a Beethoven if Mozart had only followed the rules he got from Bach. Breaking the rules, even while mostly playing within them, characterizes most important creative work across history. Even transgressive artists start from a structure – in fact, their transgression is only meaningful in opposition to the structure it transgresses.

The point is, some structure – the right structure – is good. History has shown that it’s better to have structure, but to break out of its rules sometimes, than to have no structure. And as the Heath Brothers discuss beautifully and at length in Decisive, you have to break your structure sometimes to enable creativity.

You have to strike a balance. Most tools “designed for” PMs are too constricting (see my earlier post on the danger of treating product management as a list management problem). But in contrast wikis are too freeform – they don’t help you think as a product manager, but just as a thinker. Without enough structure, it’s easier to leave stuff out of your thinking that you should be including (see my post about Impact Areas, for example). This is even more true if you want some analytical ability – analytics depends on structure.

Let me know what you think about structure and lack of structure in the comments.

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Mar 14

Don’t Just Use Social Proof – Make Sure It’s Personal

We have learned – from Dan Pink in Drive, Chip and Dan Heath in Switch, and many others – that to engage and motivate people effectively, you need to reach both their rational self and their emotional self. The research shows that one of the main jobs of our rational brain is to justify the decisions of our emotional brain, and a good way to reach the emotional brain is to talk about personal goals

I’ve been working with clients recently to help them engage their prospects better on their websites. I’m surfacing how the prospect’s personal goals will be satisfied by the product or offering by sharing social proof of how existing customers have achieved their personal goals.

To do this, I’m going through the clients’ success stories (and in some cases, doing more interviews) to find statements of:

  • Low expectations that were exceeded
  • Problems they faced that had personal impact, and were solved
  • Worries about a product solution that the solution didn’t have (especially if a competitor did!)
  • Impact of problems that the solution addressed
  • How they measure the success of the solution in personal terms 
  • How their standing in the company changed after the solution was implemented
  • Unexpected benefits they got by using the solution

For example, one of my favorites is a client who said that after implementing the solution, “I could wake up in the morning and not dread how much will I have to multi-task today.” Now, that’s a personal goal that’s been satisfied – not dreading waking up!

Another client said that as a result of a successful project with the solution, “everyone from management to sales and product management look at us [i.e., her group] as experts” in a particular area.

A last example, showing that you don’t have to help people sleep better to get a great personal benefit – eliminating annoying and tedious work is a great result as well: “The solution has saved our department a lot of time and headaches by eliminating most of the tedious, manual tasks associated with our [old process].”

Now I’ll be working with these clients to use these stories in their marketing at the top level, so prospects can immediately get emotionally engaged with how the solutions will improve their lives.

Taking Action

Here are three things you can do today to start using these ideas:

  1. Whenever you talk to a customer, try to elicit some thoughts about how your product has helped them satisfy personal goals, from being less annoyed by their work, to being more praised by their peers. You can use the list of points above as a guideline for your questions. 
  2. Search through your existing customer success stories and find the quotes that represent personal successes for the speaker, and not just the achievement of business goals – which are not as engaging.
  3. Work with your marketing department to start using these personal goal achievement quotes at a top-level on your website – use A/B testing to confirm they create more engagement than what you might have there already.

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