Matt LeMay tells the story of a meeting he had with author and publisher Mike Shatzkin a long time ago: “I was just out of college, and I was trying to describe what I do. He had a moment of recognition, slammed his hand down on the table, and said, ‘synthesis and articulation, that’s what you do’. I’ll never forget it.”
Synthesis and articulation encapsulate what Matt is about. He loves to think and communicate about technology, to reflect on the meaning of communication and what organisations can do to improve it. After a product management career at Google and elsewhere, he’s now a partner in consultancy Sudden Compass with Tricia Wang and Sunny Bates, which focuses on customer centricity and communication. The trio has been working together for just over five years and have an enviable roster of clients which includes Procter & Gamble, Spotify, Mailchimp and GE.
Matt’s need to articulate is epitomised by one of his current projects. He’s currently working on his third book, which will be called One Page, One Hour. He already has a website, Onepageonehour.com that invites people to pledge to spend no more than an hour working on any deliverable before sharing it with colleagues.
Successful Teams Share Work in Progress
Why One Page, One Hour? Because his experience shows that successful teams share their works in progress. He’s worked with businesses that have used plenty of other tools – like Amazon Narrative for example – to guide their communication and process: “You find they’ve spent weeks on these documents, whether they’re decks or narrative memos, so by the time these things are shared they feel so finished that people don’t give good feedback. And the people who’ve been working on the documents don’t want to hear any feedback at all. ”
Matt adds that a couple of months ago Sudden Compass worked with a team who were putting together a guide for how they should work together. They were already at a staggering 75 pages. “This is commonplace,” he says, “it happens because people don’t want conflict and it’s always less contentious to add than it is to subtract. I put together a one-page, one-hour document for them. They tore it apart, and that was exactly the point – the constraint forced them to focus, and we all understood that it was a work in progress.”
The first thing Matt and his partners do when they’re consulting at a business is to introduce constraints, whether it’s time-boxing meetings, introducing one-page one-hour working, whatever. “We’ve seen a lot of companies trying to effect digital transformation without any constraints,” he says, “and we find they never get clarity because they just keep adding more stuff. Before you know it, it’s out of control.”
Start With Specifics, not the Vision
Matt’s advice is that you should start with specifics in any conversations about culture and change. “There’s always a wish to start with vision, but that to me is dangerously unconstrained, and unbounded. Instead, why not start with a specific decision your team made in the last week that you’re unsure about and extrapolate out from there?”
Even this approach of starting with specifics needs to be carefully considered. Matt was working with a team recently when someone said ‘we should prioritise quick wins’ – something that’s said in business meetings all the time. When he asked what was meant by a quick win, it became clear some of the team thought it was something that would take an hour, for other people it was a month – and as they all thought of it in terms of time clearly the quick part was more important than the win. “This happens all the time in organisations,” Matt adds. “Everyone walks away from a conversation feeling like they’re getting what they want, and then we create a thing that none of us want.”
Communication Shapes Your Product
Matt says there’s a central misconception about business communication that he returns to time and again. It is that communication exists distinctly and sequentially from what is being communicated. That is to say you have a plan or an idea, or you make a decision, and then you communicate it. Matt counters: “But I would say that the thing doesn’t exist outside the communication – the way you communicate it shapes the thing itself. Say a product team writes a product spec and tells stakeholders about it to get buy-in. It will be interpreted differently by everyone. The most meaningful misalignments are just as likely to emerge from the way the product vision is communicated as they are from the vision itself. And even as the team communicates that vision, their own sense of the product is being shaped and changed.”
He thinks that teams work under the misguided assumption that the feature or product they’re creating already exists as a finite and predetermined thing. He argues: “Communication is critical because it doesn’t just tell us what we’re going to do, it shapes that thing. If there was one thing I could do in the product world, it would be to get people to understand that communication is not an afterthought. It’s not just how you get people to see something, it is the thing. It’s how we shape and create our products and plans and strategies.”
Matt has a long history of needing to articulate and transmit his ideas. Always passionate about music, he started to write for Pitchfork.com while he was still in high school. He formed a band with some friends while he was at college and that became his life for several years (you can still find him and his former band Get Him Eat Him on Spotify). To make ends meet – as he says music is a terrible business, but a wonderful hobby – he worked part time as a marketing manager for a music non profit, and built websites and back-end systems for record labels.
When his band broke up in 2009, Matt decided he should work in a different industry, one where he could make a living. He thought about ad agencies or tech companies, as both are businesses that can be receptive to creative people when, as he puts it, “their purely artistic pursuits become unsustainable”. Then he met Andy Weissman through a shared interest in music – Andy had seen a blog Matt had written about a concert funded on Kickstarter – and Andy got him started at Bitly.
Being the First Product Manager
“I was the first product manager at Bitly,” Matt says, “and I had no idea what a product manager was supposed to do. At the time there weren’t a lot of resources for product managers, nothing like the thriving community and multiple perspectives we have now. So when I came into it, I broadly understood the theory but I felt like what I was doing had little to do with the theory. One of the hardest things about being the first product manager in a company is that there’s very little pre-existing sense of what product management means to the organisation.”
Matt remembers being asked to host a hackathon at Bitly and having no idea how to go about it. “I needed something to channel my anxiety. The Bitly logo at the time was a puffer fish and so I made these little puffer fish cupcakes with edible googly eyes because I just didn’t know what else to do. The next day one of the company leaders said ‘I want to thank Matt for knowing that sometimes cupcakes are more important than corporate sponsors’, and I thought, ‘oh no, was I supposed to get corporate sponsors?’. I was figuring it out as I went along.”
He found he could apply some of what he learned as part of a band to being a product manager. For example, he learned a lot about how to keep a team motivated by leading a band, and he came to understand that people working on the same thing can have different motivations. Assuming that other people’s motivation tallies with our own is a sure-fire route to miscommunication, he says. “In a band, my motivation was to get my songs out and heard, it would be unfair to think that my bandmates had the same motivation. People working in service of your vision aren’t going to get the same satisfaction realising that vision.”
Clarity Over Comfort
The challenges in communication are consistent, he finds, no matter what size the business. He expected to see a very different set of challenges in some of the big companies he works with, but this hasn’t been the case. He comments: “There is a shorter distance for messages to travel in a startup, but each step of the journey looks largely the same. So much of our communication is driven by basic human emotion and habit.”
People try to avoid being wrong in front of others, or a difficult conversation with someone more powerful, or appearing as though they don’t know the answer. But what’s needed is clarity rather than comfort: “It’s uncomfortable to get into specificity because being wrong about something specific can be really embarrassing. It’s much easier to talk about generalities and say we all want quick wins and good outcomes for the business. A lot of product management is about navigating that discomfort and fighting for clarity. Things are unclear until we do the work to make them clear, it’s often the most important work but rarely recognized as such.”
See Matt at #mtpcon San Francisco
We are delighted to be welcoming Matt to the stage at #mtpcon San Francisco this year (July 14) where he’ll join a line up of truly amazing speakers. While he’s not yet giving too much away we can reveal that Matt’s talk will be on the subject – ‘what am I supposed to do all day?’.
Matt joins other fantastic speakers including Amanda Richardson (CEO of Rabbit), Kristen Berman (Co-Founder of Irrational Labs) and more. Visit our conference page to discover who else will be taking to the stage, for information on workshops and to buy your tickets.