A plea for Product craft: shout about your ‘negative space’

An empty EV charging point.
I often wonder about this EV charging poing nearby. It’s often empty. Is that because there aren’t enough EVs? Because EV drivers are more socially minded and make space for the next driver? Or because they can’t wait to get out in their lovely EV? Anyway – it’s negative space with a story, so read on…

Like many folks loosely grouped under the label “Product Leader”, I’ve been increasingly worried by the light crisis-of-confidence that’s been brewing around the role of a Product Manager over the last while – ranging from Brian Chesky’s restructuring of how he uses the role at AirBnB through to work kicking off in government with ever-shrinking Product involvement.

Some people in wider industry have described this focus away from PMs as “the reckoning”, which I think is a little unfair. Product Management is still an important role, but it’s been a bumpy ride with a few scaling problems. Many of the people doing it at the very start had tons of prior experience and knew what “product” was building on top of, but could have shown our workings more; there was a lot of propaganda early on (to escape the false certainty of the project mindset around public-facing work), which made it sound easy (and exactly the sort of thing someone young, confident and ambitous would get into); plus there was a resultant need across the whole industry to create large numbers of these people FAST.

So yes, we’ve got gaps we need to fill in – places where we grew too quickly and stretched the expertise slightly too thin. Places where we had managers who didn’t fully know the craft themselves, and couldn’t grow the new generation the right way. Work that happened too fast, so people were rewarded by certainty or salesmanship, rather than making the right sort of mistakes that would help them understand how to do this well. Situations where we didn’t help people understand enough of the value of other organisational viewpoints because we were in that hurry to transform – so we ended up looking a bit arrogant. I wouldn’t go as far as one CPO who said “and we have brought this upon ourselves”; this was a response to a shift in the industry mindset that spotted a new shiny and thought it was a way they could genuinely have faster, better, more and cheaper.

So I do think it’s time for us to fill in those gaps. Fast. And I spotted a gap that I think is worth calling out, for everyone’s sake. An easy one. Particularly if you’re doing proper Product. But bear with me, because it’ll require drawing a few threads together.

Full disclosure: I only noticed this late last week, when getting a playback of the findings from one of our squad’s recent work. I was watching them present, thinking “this is great, but it’s hard to see why we’ve spent all this time and money”. This seemed even weirder because the people in question are super-smart, very thoughtful, and I know they’d been doing the right work the right way. But why did the “findings” deck feel like we’d just gone round in circles? (And why did I have the sinking feeling that I’d seen this type of result before?)

Then, somehow, the penny dropped. Several pennies.

Thankfully I’d a) been abusing the concept of “negative space” when talking about metrics to some of our Product Managers earlier in the week, b) been teaching our squads about Teresa Torres’ “Opportunity Solution Trees” and made them all watch her brilliant talk from 2017’s Mind the Product conference. Watch it, it’s great.

So luckily I had these ideas already in my head:

  • Negative Space – what’s the story in what you’re not talking about
  • People fall in love with their ideas
  • People see a problem and want to solve it

And then I remembered something I first started to say in corridors/meetings about a decade ago. I think I came up with it in the early days of government, but it 1000% might have been something I inherited/stole from Talke or Kat when we worked together at Cimex(RIP). Or maybe James Darling, just like the milk-intervention thing.

Anyway, it’s this:

Almost all user research is obvious in hindsight.

And this is the combination of traps this set of highly capable and smart people had fallen into in their findings deck – that summarised them doing all the right work. And I realised I’d seen this pattern far, far, too often without spotting it and calling it out.

We do Product Management in order to reduce the risks around all the wrong things we expensively could have built…but we nearly always only talk about the exciting things we’re going to build. Some of which were on stakeholder’s lists at the start. This – understandably – comes across as time-wasting navel-gazing.

Ironically, this was a thing that government Service Assessments used to explicitly test for. When I was a lead assessor I used to love this gotcha. At Alpha, we’d be looking for evidence you’d thrown away at least one big idea at the prototyping stage – otherwise you’d not been critical or ambitious enough in how you solved the problem given to you by Policy. At Beta, we’d be looking for UX dead ends – where users simply didn’t have quite the problem that Policy hoped they would, and a different flow would have to be found. You’d have to show you’d thrown something away.

Because this is why we do user-centred design. It’s not for art’s sake. It’s to manage risk. To stop us building expensive things that nobody will use.

I heard of one bit of design-by-senior-committee where some very senior people agonised about features they thought would help staff, picked their favourite , instructed that it be built, several months of development effort were invested, it was launched by the very very seniorest person from the group in an all-staff email…and was used less than a hundred times. WITH ALL THE VERY BEST INTENTIONS.

My feedback to this squad was to go back and add in slides about all the other brilliant stakeholder ideas that we were no longer doing. Because that was most of the value of the research and prototyping – not the ideas we were taking forward.

So my plea to Product Managers everywhere is as follows.

Talk about what you are building. Be excited about that. 100%.

But also please never stop talking about the potential cost of the entirely-plausible things you’ve proved you shouldn’t be building. The dead ends you didn’t take the organisation down, that were also just as “obvious”. The expensive mistakes you have saved your team from making. The user value risks you successfully managed – where people simply didn’t care enough, and so the business value leadership hoped for was entirely fictional. The money that was actually never there to be made.

In short, talk about the ideas you threw away, in commercial language.

How expensive they might have been. How cheaply you were able to save the organisation from spending that money. Plus – of course – how cool and valuable the options you are pursuing will be.

Do let me know how you get on.

6 thoughts on “A plea for Product craft: shout about your ‘negative space’

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