Vision, Authority, Accountability, Idea centric
It has often bothered me that a lot of products have so much potential but will often fall far short of that, the world deserves for ideas to fulfil their full potential. In this post I've tried to come up with a set of principles I have found that are necessary to create great products.
Vision is when everyone understands what you're trying to collectively achieve in detail. There is a singular focus on a preferred future, and you're all actively pushing towards that goal.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” - Proverbs 29:18
Never have words been truer when it comes to product development. Without personal vision, we perish, and without a vision for your product the product and in relation, the company will perish.
So why is vision so important? Without vision there is no singular focus, people are unrestrained, everyone goes off with their idea of things and since there is no focus on one goal, it will never happen.
In my opinion, you shouldn’t be running product (at any level) if you don’t have a clear vision of what you wish to accomplish with the products that you are producing. Now, this vision doesn’t need to originate from yourself but it needs to be strong enough so that you can latch onto it and so that it has meaning to yourself, and more importantly that others can do the same.
Authority (& Ownership)
What else do we need for good product development to happen? Authority & Ownership. Without the right company structure, product managers (or anyone for that matter) are destined to fail from the get-go. Let’s imagine a risk-averse company, doesn’t want to affect it’s numbers and doesn’t have clear product ownership. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Well, the reason most product managers are ineffective is that most companies are like this. So it stands to reason that if you empowered the product managers properly they may turn out differently.
A product manager should have absolute authority over their product area. They own that area and are responsible for delivering value in that area. “Product manager” is a poor title for whom this responsibility should lie to, I prefer “product pioneer” - it sounds a lot less stagnate and a whole lot more inspirational. These people shouldn’t have to ask their superiors whether to change a button from green to blue and, more importantly, they shouldn’t have to ask whether they can redefine the entire experience. What matters is that they are responsible for their actions and the company trusts them to make those actions.
Sounds risky, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the point. Stagnation is death. The only way to operate is to keep taking risks. I’d rather someone took ten risks and failed six times, rather than succeeding once in the same period.
If a product pioneer tries something and that causes the numbers to go down 50% that week, then what? So, you’ve lost some money and time. You revert the change and move on. However, now you’ve tried it, it didn’t work and next time you will have more wisdom to get it right. Gained knowledge is one of the most valuable commodities your company can acquire. What most risk-averse companies would do in the scenario above is to reduce the trust they have in that employee, but instead, they should be praised for taking risks, trying something radical and seeing if it paid off.
The third principle is accountability, both internally among the team, and externally, to the company.
Let’s tackle externally first. You may be thinking that, with all this authority and ownership, accountability will be reduced. There is a risk of that, however, it can be alleviated. Accountability to the rest of the company goes as the following: They have a set of targets to reach, guided by strong principles, and report against those. They can be questioned on what they are delivering (at set times) and they provide visibility into their work (again at set times).
Internal accountability is even more interesting. In this context, the principle pertains to the accountability that a team has within itself. Earlier I wrote that a product pioneer should have absolute authority over their product area - this is true externally, however, internally, it’s more constrained. Internally, the best idea is what is implemented. Now, if we have a great product pioneer, with a clear vision, then, nine times out of ten, it will be their idea that is the best idea - as it should be. This definition of the best idea is one that is earned, not just simply accepted based on position in the company hierarchy. Perhaps, an example is the easiest way to walk through these concepts.
Let’s imagine that we have a team that’s dedicated to a feed. Their target is to increase the sharing of content by 50% (this is unknown by the team - only the product manager) If the product manager had sole internal authority they may have reasoned within themselves that adding the ability to comment on a post will increase sharing by 50%, so they decide that and tell the team that this is what we are going to build. Now some in the team aren’t fully convinced by this, but their concerns are overruled based on the position that the pioneer carries. This instantly decimates the potential of a great delivery, since your team is immediately divided and carries separate visions - moaning and grumbling will ensue shortly.
Now let’s imagine a team where the best idea is built. Firstly, the target will be public knowledge ahead of time, the whole team knows that we have to increase the sharing of content by 50%. However, that in itself is not enough. The WHY needs to be answered also. So the team pushes back on the ambiguous target and asks why. It turns out that, when users contribute to our product (rather than passively consuming), they are ten times more likely to be retained. So the target of increasing shared content is because the leadership team feels this would be a good way to have people contributing and therefore retained.
This is a good idea but not a great idea. Now that the team knows what truly is the reason and why they have been tasked with building something, they can finally be creative and come up with a proper solution to the correct problem.
How could this play out? Well, the team uses a week to come up with ideas (independently or in groups) then, at the end of the week, they each present their ideas through demos, (including the product pioneer) and each demo is deliberated intensely until they are fully fleshed out and then a consensus will be formed. You may spend months implementing the idea, so getting it right at the start is worth every second.
The best idea has now been chosen, what effect has this got on the team? Firstly, there is unity and agreement since everyone is on board with the idea they are implementing. Secondly, since everyone has directly contributed, they feel personally invested. This leads to much better morale and a much better final product since the vision is clear and unambiguous, and the team is properly motivated.
Regardless of what role we play in the product development cycle, we can all start to embody these principles to help the development of our products. A good place to start is at the top, do you know what the vision of your team is? If you where to ask your colleagues, would they say the same thing?
Asking these questions can start a sequence of events that will hopefully onboard the whole team on to these principles, and therefore ensure your products have a better chance of success.
I'd love to hear how you get on with these principles and if you have any questions - don't hestitate to get in touch!