In this keynote from #mtpcon San Francisco, Fareed Mosavat, Director of Product, Lifecycle, at Slack, shares his early career lessons on creativity from Pixar. He says being a great product leader is about being a director instead of a manager.
Products have become much more complex over the last 20 years and an increasingly competitive and crowded marketplace has led to the creation of new roles, different teams, design sprints and methodologies. Now, it’s not enough just to solve problems for today’s customers, products must also be delivered beautifully and intelligently. As Fareed says: “It’s incredible we are able to build anything at all.”
We’re in a Revolutionary Shift
Fareed talks about railroad manager Daniel McCallum, the founder of management principles and inventor of the first modern organization chart. Fareed believes we are going through another revolutionary shift akin to the industrial revolution – it’s a shift that means a significant change for digital products and the role of the product manager is evolving. Metrics, dashboards, OKRs, and agile frameworks are forcing product managers to increase predictability in order to control the process and predict the future. This increase in prediction creates a big challenge: how do we keep highly compensated creative talent, with various skills and expertise, focused and aligned on one common goal?
Product Leaders are like Film Directors
Three Key Principles
Fareed shares three fundamental principles from his early career at Pixar: tell a great story, unlock creative freedom, and connect the dots with feedback.
1. Tell a Great Story
How do you pitch your product story to inspire teams and get everyone behind your idea? User stories do not count. He recommends watching film director Andrew Stanton’s pitch for the film Finding Nemo. Character, emotion, logic, and reason can rally a team, however “logic is necessary but not sufficient enough to move creative people to act”.
2. Unlock Creative Freedom
Do you give your teams enough creative independence to act on ideas as they come, or do you limit creativity to quarterly brainstorming sessions? As the bar for quality and the requirement for business results rises so does the requirement for more specificity. More specificity stifles creativity. Fareed quotes Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar: “Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”
To negate increasing specificity requirements, Fareed offers three tactics to inspire creative solutions: spec it loose, get to the next hill, and “plus” at every touch.
1. Spec it Loose – If a designer receives detailed specs, there is no room for creative input. This limits the real value of your product.
2. Get to the Next Hill – As leaders, it is your role to help your team get to the next product challenge “together”.
3. “Plus” at Every Touch – If you touch a product, it should leave your hand better than you found it.
The third fundamental principle is the primary role of a product leader: connect the dots with frequent feedback.
3. Connect the Dots with Feedback
1. Review Before it’s Ready – Do not wait for feedback. Get it in front of people early and often.
2. Frequency, Easy, Safe – Say your current company organizational structure makes it difficult and raises unnecessary friction for feedback. The solution? In a safe environment, product leaders should build a culture of frequent and consistent feedback.
3. Give Feedback Holistically and Find the Right Zoom Level – Tools like Google Docs have room for improvement by providing holistic and themed feedback. Comments only given at the micro level will dilute the actual product story you want to tell.
4. Review in Public – This is the hardest to put into practice. It may humiliate a team member in the short term, however for the long term it will help everyone on the team to find solutions faster and better.
To solve more complex product problems and to keep highly talented teams engaged, creativity is key. Great product leaders are no longer managers, great product leaders are directors.