What we Learned at Mind the Product London 2017

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON SEPTEMBER 10, 2017

I opened this year’s Mind the Product London conference by suggesting that product management isn’t actually about managing products, but about managing people. I believe that to be successful we need to work across disciplines and make sure that everyone in the team owns the product together. Great products come from great people, and great people come from working together – which is why everyone was there at the conference after all – meeting the people that mind the product.

#mtpcon London 2017 hall

Saving Time and Money

For the opening keynote, the world’s tallest designer and best-selling Author of Sprint Jake Knapp talked us through the genesis of his Design Sprint process. This process lets a small, committed team get to the crux of a single problem quicker, so you can explore a solution more effectively than is otherwise possible in a traditional organisation or even in a nimble start-up. And while Design Sprints don’t give you a perfect solution or exact data, they give you more than enough information to decide what to do next. They can save you a lot of time and money as well as resulting in better products.

A Centreline Experience

Next up to speak was Blade Kotelly, Experience Strategy Lead at Sonos. He showed us how good innovation should make your company feel uncomfortable. Despite what many people believe, Blade has a process that he says will give you the best chance to innovate, although it necessarily doesn’t guarantee success. The process is based around Research, Design, Prototype and Testing, but it also needs a focus – what Blade calls a “centreline experience”.

This centreline experience is the thing that your users can’t do without, and they won’t engage with you unless you have it. By finding insights from non-traditional sources, focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve and testing quickly, you can define the centreline experience at the heart of your new service or product.

#mtpcon London 2017 audience

Compare and Contrast

Product discovery coach Teresa Torres then urged us not to ask whether an idea is good or not, rather that we should compare and contrast different ideas in order to find genuine quality. She said we need to look at particular user opportunities in turn rather than try to solve everything for a wide range of groups, this is the way to get past obvious, shallow solutions.

Teresa’s opportunity solution tree can help us to do this. This opportunity solution tree is a visual aid that can help you find the best place to focus your team’s energies, whilst ensuring you consider enough opportunities. Most importantly, opportunity solution trees also bring transparency to the process and get the whole team to buy into the decisions being made and the solutions being tested.

Quality Design

Besides chiding us all for using our mothers as a unit of internet stupidity, Jane Austin, Director of Design and UX at print company Moo, took us through her philosophy for ensuring quality design in digital products. She says that rather than having a single ‘genius’ designer who drives their own solutions to problems, quality design facilitates the bringing together of different perspectives. For this to work, you need to build a deep, shared understanding, and once you get to this point, you can operate through consent, not consensus, meaning that decisions can be made quickly and transparently.

We can all be Creative

Best-selling Author Scott Berkun then gave an insightful talk with the premise that everyone and anyone can be creative and come up with innovative solutions to problems.

He pointed out that all ideas are made of other ideas. Everything that you want to make is intended to solve a problem. These problems are not new – even if the end product might be. Look into how they’ve been solved before to find new ideas for solving them.

He said that great ideas often look weird (to begin with). In real life, you have to make sure that you investigate the ‘weird’ ideas every now and again, to make sure you’re not missing out on a paradigm shift in your midst.

Finally, we should bear in mind that our minds are naturally creative. Our creativity is sparked by problems that need to be solved. This happens in all aspects of our lives, but is not seen as something everyone can do at work. It’s down to our teams to create the safe space where creativity can happen. When anyone is suitably motivated by a tough problem, creativity is unavoidable.

#mtpcon London 2017 audience

Being Human

Calm technology advocate and Visiting Researcher at MIT Amber Case took the stage next to help us all to consider how our technology should get out of our way, rather than constantly interrupt us. Drawing on some of the work at Xerox PARC she walked us through her principles of Calm Technology and underlined that a person’s primary task shouldn’t be computing – it should be being a human. Technology has to work alongside us rather than take over our lives. Try putting your phone on airplane mode by default, she suggested – and check in when you need to rather than allow yourself to be interrupted all the time.

Space Shapes Culture

Sarah Nelson, Program Architect from IBM Studios, talked to us all about how her studios hack their offices to better meet the needs of their teams. Clearly spaces shape culture – they are a huge factor in the way that we work and will always define the overall working environment, both personally and physically. As such, as leaders in our organisations, we need to pay attention to our environment to foster the creative collaboration we all want.

Creative spaces are all about making, experimentation, play and collaboration. They should have a way of bringing new ideas into the community (like libraries) and ideally they should be flexible and able to expand and contract as the work needs them to. If we take the same approach that we do to our products – trying things out quickly to see what meets the needs of our users, then we can get to a space which we and our teams will love working in.

#mtpcon London 2017 audience

Interacting With Machines

Big Medium Founder Josh Clark gave an inspiring talk about how to design product in a world of machine learning, algorithms and mass data collection. He artfully took us through three principles we should follow if we hope to create products that have a positive impact on people’s’ lives, rather than embed the injustices of the past.

We need to embrace uncertainty and help machines interact with humans to ask for help when there is no perfect answer, Josh said. We need to understand that these systems only know what we tell them and if we feed them data which confirms our existing biases then they will react with the same injustices. Finally, we have to involve our users in the collection of their data and make it perfectly clear how it will be used. Inspiring stuff that should help all of us be better product managers, and maybe even better humans.

Who to Hire

Silicon Valley Product Group Partner Lea Hickman took the stage next to look at how we can develop a product culture. First she told us to look for intellectual curiosity, natural collaboration and grit in ourselves and the product managers that we hire. By starting with the people in our teams we can then look at how we operate with other stakeholders and focus on building credibility across the business. This then builds us up so that we are afforded more autonomy and can make better decisions on the products we’re building.

On top of this, transparency is key for generating respect for the product management team and its mission. This means being just as comfortable about delivering bad news as when you have positive results. Otherwise you are only telling half the story and people won’t believe you know the whole situation you’re in.

Finally, for Lea, the most critical shift is the switch from directing product teams with tasks to making them investigate solutions to goals. This is characterised by a move from focussing on outputs to focussing on outcomes. There are no organisations that have established a strong product culture without having made this change.

#mtpcon London 2017 stage

Inventing the Future

ExecCamp Founder and Author of Lean Enterprise Barry O’Reilly finished off the day with a rousing session on how confident organisations are not scared by the future, but are trying to invent it. Management processes and systems do not currently match the speed and complexity of the market that we operate in. Methods such as annual performance reviews, quarterly planning and budgeting just do not allow us to react with the speed that’s required – or to operate a business in an efficient way.

Instead, Barry said, we need to use purpose to empower – the best organisations are not motivated by money, they are working towards a common vision that people understand and share. We need to start small and make big changes – even the biggest changes need to start with manageable pieces. Think what’s the smallest thing you can do tomorrow to make a difference. And finally we need to transform ourselves, not other people – don’t focus on how others operate, look at what you do and how that can improve the organisation. A simple change is to become a better leader by asking better questions rather than trying to come up with better answers.

#mtpcon London 2017 lobby

Back to the People

As we wrapped up the day it was clear that building products people love means focusing on people. Whether it’s the people our products serve, and a focus on researching and understanding them, or the people we need to build those products, and the processes and culture we need to put in place to get everyone working together towards the same goals. Simply put, great products come from great people working together. As product managers, it’s down to us to make this happen.

What were your takeaways?

Check out our recap post full of sketchnotes and audience write-ups and reactions. Look out for videos and full write-ups of each talk over the coming weeks!

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20+ years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Chief Product Officer at large, advising and mentoring startups. He is also the author of best-seller Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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