Building Fast and Slow

The leftovers

August 18, 2022

The other day a good friend was pushing me to give The Leftovers a chance, a 2014 TV show where 2% of the population suddenly vanishes. The series is about the impact an event like that has on social conventions, human relationships and the individual psyche. In a world where people believe others may simply vanish inexplicably the next day, there may be little shadow of the future to be concerned with - you simply can’t trust there will be a future for you, your loved ones, or others that cross your paths. Of course some will still persevere and keep their humanity, with themselves and others, but no ones keeps going unscathed.

A thought experiment my mind jumped to, was to think of a world where suddenly all our musicians disappeared, all our writers, or all our physicists. What would it mean for all of us, if any of the pivotal foundations of our culture or of our knowledge, simply collapsed overnight.

Sure, we could relearn things, we’ve built semi-robust systems of information storage and retrieval, but how many decades would losing all of our domain experts set us back?

And what if all the software engineers disappeared? Or all the product designers?

Everything around us is growingly powered by software. Software engineers are scarce and as a consequence some of the best paid workers of our generation. If there’s no one there to maintain our utilities’ software infrastructure, to keep the products that allow us to stay connected working, to transact with brands or between brands all over the world, to keep our accounting on track, know when the next flight is, operate that flight safely… how long until things would start to fall apart? How long until we put them back together?

What if all the Product people disappeared?

Of course if you asked this question to 100 PMs, they would all run in different directions depending on the size of their ego, their sense of relative importance relative to their organizations, and where in the impostor syndrome lifecycle curve they are at that particular point in time.

However, that’s not what this reflection is about. It’s about pondering on the actual counterfactual of our existence. What if there was a sudden impossibility to having PMs within our software teams. What would actually collapse?

All product managers know we’re super important. We all know without us terrible decisions would be made across the board. Stakeholders of all walks of corporate life would be preying down on engineering teams with their poorly formed ideas and HiPPOs and lack of understanding of the unique idiosyncrasies of building software. Right?

Maybe. That’s not how a lot of the best products are created in the a startup microclimate. Small teams with people working cross-disciplinarily have built amazing things before they hired a single PM. Apple, Stripe, Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Pixar, Amazon, the list goes on.

How did they build amazing things, why did they succeed, and why do the ingredients and human interactions that led to their success end up diluting into a sea of process - and lead them to needing someone or some ones, in charge of building product?

What great product people (not managers, or owners, or heads of, or VPs, specifically) actually do much better than anyone else, is to build things that make a big difference to a lot of people. So much so that someone will want to pay for it.

Very simple fortune cookie concept. Do the right things right.

Great product people look around, identify opportunities that are not obvious to others (but always look obvious in hindsight), spot areas with lots of adjacencies that drive the generation of virtuous feedback loops, are right about what solutions will actually make a difference, know exactly what shortcuts to take, the degree of reversibility of their decisions, and how to build relationships that enable everyone around them to contribute effectively. Ultimately accelerate the trajectory of the product through the opportunity space until the opportunity starts to wane.

Then, they start again.

Now, PMs usually have to do this with no actual managerial power over those they work with on a day to day basis (their engineering peers, the designers, analysts and the oft-dreaded stakeholders). All they have power over is just the shape and relative importance of the product’s attributes themselves.

This makes driving decisions harder, of course. The conditions to build great product effectively, especially when in the face of large opportunity spaces, are much easier to offer small teams who are relatively unattached to menial constraints.

That is to say: a small startup can find desire paths that shortcut any real-world constraints, by simply building.

Also: They are free to ignore all of the constraints that don’t actually impact the building process at its core. An API doesn’t exist? Build something that doesn’t scale.

(A scaled co usually identifies a dependency and goes back and forth over roadmapping and priorities)

The technology isn’t mature yet? Build it, or build something that emulates its output.

(A scaled co usually creates an R&D team with a side-product value stream or simply disinvests)

The market for it doesn’t seem to exist to most observers? Go out and find a niche that was looking for just such a thing, find someone to fund the vision, and build out from there.

(Again, easier to disinvest or create friction around incorporating into the main product, to risk compromising its core biz - classic Innovator’s Dilemma)

The ability to overcome constraints by just building “harder” is what tech companies are designed to do. So much so, that the mindset, when taken to an extreme, often produces one of two categories of outcomes: a category defining product like the iPhone or Airbnb, or a major catastrophic failure that tarnishes the soil it once stepped on: Theranos.

It is much harder to justify that type of investment in purely building (and the unrestrained decision-making process that underlies it) when you’re in a network of teams seeking to problem solve in a coordinated manner towards a set of larger goals. So forget the mini-CEO thing.

Generally, if you’re too far off the swimming current, a (generally) benevolent middle manager or executive will pull you back to a larger value stream to pool resources - i.e. let’s pull investment on that crazy outlandish idea and focus on a bigger problem, intending to make it more likely that value will actually be extracted. Generally, the PM will then be tasked with ensuring that value is indeed, captured.

So what if all the product people disappeared? What if everyone else had to absorb the role of product in their orgs overnight?

Some companies will definitely become less successful, as well as likely to succeed into the future, because the individuals in the PM roles were naturally those that have been selected for demonstrating the traits above, they do amazing incremental product work that the team wouldn’t do themselves if they weren’t there, and they rally those around them to accomplish it.

Other companies (or teams) will actually work much better without someone being a PM per se.

They will be forced to succeed by sharing and engaging in product thinking. Responsibility silos turn into shared accountability, lack of optionality means you can’t resort to you-do-you-i-do-me adn turns the team itself into the atomic unit at which product thinking occurs. While the rate of failure may go up for these teams temporarily, average product skills per individual go up, and these teams are much more likely to thrive longer term.

Product management is always a remedy to a certain level of organizational disfunction. A remedy most effectively applied where there is asymmetry in the distribution of that essential builder’s mindset that wants to solve problems for others, that craves to create something others want, a disfunction that is evolution dictates is rapidly killed in the tight sealed environment of a missionary startup (by either killing the virus or the host), but which may be an inevitability after a certain level of scale.

At scale, the number of links between any product change and its environment that need to be transversed before any release even reaches a customer is exponentially larger. Scale breeds complex systems, and complex systems are fertile grounds for n-th order consequences. Really strong product people become the stewards of problem analysis, system design and solution synthesis, as well as coordination and storytelling necessary at orgs past a certain Dunbar number equivalent.

The thought experiment then, extremely unlikely as it may be, so, is one of humility, of a need to return to the essentials of the function, of cooperative altruism, and of an evolutionary mindset. Those essential product traits must be cultivated both at the individual level, as well as at the team level.

We’d all be better off if we knew that if every Product Manager disappeared, what teams would miss, at the end of the day, would be the help of someone who embodies that customer-focused builder mentality on a day-to-day basis, and who helps everyone else embody them too.

Written by Carlos Oliveira , a product person building products with and for other people. Talk to me on twitter