Product Manager - Magician, Artist or Scientist?
Arthur C. Clarke wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
If, when we develop products:
We pretend that our success is down to magic.
We act like artists, the only people who can do this.
We hide away the scientific method.
Then, unfortunately, we prevent the world from learning how to develop great products.
We suffer because we cannot develop the products the customers and organisations need. Ultimately, this means we don’t receive the products we need in our own lives.
If we stop and explain and share how we learned about and why we chose that way to develop our products, we’ll get better results now and in the future.
The Christmas TV Show
I saw several TV programmes this past winter where people developed products for the Christmas market.
In all cases, the view presented was an individual going to a team and telling them what they needed. Chefs, designers, and chemists were instructed on how precisely to change their products, all pitched as art, bordering on magic.
The images and voice-overs were looking, smelling, tasting the product and asking for adjustments. Much pondering made the cut (the artist considering the ideal product), but maths, science, and facts were all conspicuously absent.
Like all good product people, they tested the products, but only with their teams. Customer “testing” was at the launch event. “Testing” was designed to generate Instagram and TikTok views and promotion, not seeking feedback to refine and improve.
Why do they develop their products differently from mine?
As a product person, I found this view of developing products curious. Curious because, in my experience, there is a lot more going on as we develop products. Why is it that product development was shown as art, and at the end of the episode if they were successful (customers bought them in good numbers), it was magic?
To be fair, one line in one programme discussed getting the order quantities from merchandising. They would set the production volumes of the product. So by these programmes, Product Development is 99% Art & Magic and 1% Science.
How do we develop products?
Over the Winter, on long walks with the dog (thanks to Flora the Boxer), this description came back repeatedly, and I wondered, away from the TV cameras, what do you and I do when we develop products?
Firstly we all work hard to acquire the most effective tools and skills. We then practice and refine using these in different situations. So we are ready for any product anywhere - Science.
Then when we are working on a product, we produce just the right tool with a flourish, and the team love it. You enjoy being the artist solving the problem - Art.
Finally, we are modest about how we build a product; it’s a particularly remarkable result of the team - Magic.
So why do we do this?
Why might we exhibit these behaviours?
You’ll be discovered as a fraudulent Product Developer without the right tools. So we acquire these tools and skills like magpies to avoid being found out and avoid embarrassment.
We as humans seek acceptance and quickly learn that when deploying the right tool at the right time, we appreciate the response and result. We get a dopamine hit as the artist drops another masterful brush stroke on the product canvas.
So we are taking a scientific approach but making it appear like art.
So why do we aspire to be magicians? Times they are-a-changing, and the pace has sped up. If we are one of a small circle of product magicians, we are the rare element vital to producing unique products - we become indispensable.
We could wrap up this discussion now. We are scientists acting like artists enjoying our time on the stage when we magic the product from the top hat.
All good - No!
Many of you will find the following resonates:
Sometimes, maybe even daily, people and processes make it harder to develop and deliver the outcomes your customers and business need. Things like:
Internal processes that demand a 2-year Gantt chart of features.
CEOs whose pet needs must be met, without evidence of any value.
Employees who don’t appreciate the value of what others can do.
In the post-truth world, what pleases the group is more important than scientific methods and evidence.
How much better could we meet the needs of customers and organisations if we all helped to enable teams to deliver those products and services, instead of standing in the way?
OK, I agree, but what can I do about it?
We need to go back and remove that black velvet shroud. We need to demystify the artistry. We must return to taking people on the journey - the highs and lows and educate them on how we develop products. So let us:
Share those stories of how that skinny test meant we didn’t waste money and time building a feature no customer wanted.
Share with the team the data that proves why we recommend one tool over another.
Talk about testing and learning to discover the right customer solution.
Be transparent about the objectives and outcomes we aim for.
Celebrate change and agility because we adapt to circumstances.
Let us take off that cape and top hat, shake off the mantle of being a Product Magician and share how we do what we do.
Let us be artful, and produce that incredible brush stroke but share why we chose it and how we acquired it. Move back and trust in the scientific method, proudly and publicly. Let us take our teams and stakeholders on this journey.
This way, we’ll all develop better products in less time and deliver more value for everyone - and in the end, isn’t that really why we are all in Product Management?
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Cover Image by the Author & Dall.E AI Image generator.