System Thinking for Product Managers by Johanna Kollmann

BY PETRA WILLE ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2017

In one of the keynotes of this year’s MTP Engage Hamburg, Johanna Kollmann reviews established system thinking concepts and applies them to the world of today’s product management.

Johanna explains that everything around us is a system: Our development teams are a system and our products become one as soon as users interact with them… and systems can be mapped and modelled in incredibly powerful ways. More importantly, systems lend themselves well to a process of continuous improvement, so all product people can benefit from understanding systems, knowing how to map them, and knowing how to change or influence systems.

And luckily product managers don’t need to start from scratch! There are various models and methods, some from as far back as the 1980s, that explain how to work with complex systems: Checkland’s Rich Pictures for example, or Donella Meadows Iceberg Model. All of them can be applied to our day to day work.

Practical Ways of Understanding Systems

Johanna’s talk is structured in a way that guides us through “Understanding” the system first and then walks us through “Changing” the system afterward.

Understanding is done by observing and mapping the System, for example using the well-known method of User Journey Mapping. Of course, there are a wide range of tools available for mapping and understanding systems, and its important to think of these as sense-making tools. They’re valuable as a way to describe your understanding of a system, and are best applied in collaboration with your critical stakeholders. The value of mapping and modelling the systems you’re trying to influence is that it helps you to spot the trends and patterns within that system, which are how you’re going to effect change.

Systematic Improvement

As soon as a system is understood, we can try to change or improve it. To do so we first need to measure change.

Johanna suggests using the concepts of stock, flows and feedback loops to describe your system, and to ensure you that understand the patterns you’re examining and are measuring the right things. To help bring the theory into focus with practical examples, she also gives clear examples of how these “abstract” descriptions can represent real-world product features you might care about – such as conversion rates and viral market growth.

Once you’ve understood and modelled your system, Johanna gives three examples of methods for introducing change, complete with real-world examples:

Changing how Information Flows Within a System

Johanna talks about how the structure of information can flow within a system – e.g. what information is shown to who, how is that information shown, and who can manipulate information. This might affect how much data you reveal via dashboards or analytics, or how you allow your users to interact with each other in your product. Making adjustments to the flow of information to suit your business purpose can be quite tricky, but it can also be critical to product success.

Changing the Rules of a System

Johanna clarifies what constitutes the “rules” of a system, and then gives a great example of a financial product that was heavily impacted by government regulation. She describes a situation where the top-down legislative rules had unintended consequences, and actively had a negative impact on users’ ability to achieve their goals. By collaborating with the regulators, her team were able to modify the rules of the overarching financial system, allowing their users to achieve their goals in the product.

Changing Mental Models by Setting the Right Goals.

In one sense, this is the easiest approach for us product managers, seeing as we’re in the powerful position of being able to define the products we work on. Of course, we can’t make our users behave differently, but we can redesign aspects of the product to encourage or guide users towards different goals, or reposition the product to be used in a different way.

More Information

All in all, this is an advanced talk, explaining a structured approach to influencing the world around us in a very effective manner. It’s densely packed with information, and a worthwhile watch for everyone who likes to apply proven theory to today’s real life challenges.

Johanna’s slides, with notes & further reading, can be found on Slideshare.

About PETRA WILLE

Product management expert & startup advisor. Writes for produktbezogen.de and is a Curator of MTP Engage Hamburg. Petra loves the web, music and kitesurfing.

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