Product managers are often told to be strategic, something that involves thinking big. Yet agile says to be small. In this #mtpcon London+EMEA session, sponsored by Amplitude, Product Evangelist and Coach at Amplitude, John Cutler, explains how balancing these two competing viewpoints is possible.
- In most companies, the timelines for business strategy, making bets and experiments, and identifying some opportunities are clear. However, there’s another area we’ve yet to define — the messy middle
- The messy middle can be tackled in four steps — the thinking around this is big but the actual work is small
- You can apply the mental model of growing plants to how you might think about the strategy you need to approach the messy middle — the things you need for growth don’t change
- Product managers need to shift from creating feature factories or a black box of siloed time-based goals to a persistent and transparent model that captures the organization’s beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses
Watch the session to see his talk in full or read on for an overview of his key points.
Trading waterfalls for whirlpools
For a long time, many teams only worked big. Then they began to define big goals and work small. Then came the need to be more nimble and agile, which resulted in teams working small.
Despite these developments, says John, there’s still room for improvement. The reality is that nothing gets done, and then everything gets done at the end of the quarter. “We took a two-week sprint. We just turned it into a quarterly sprint. So things aren’t much different,” he continues. With the average quarter being 62 days, this is too long to work small yet too short to think big.
The messy middle
Next, John explains what he calls, ‘the messy middle’.
In most companies, the timelines for business strategy (1 to 3 years), making bets and experiments (1 to 3 weeks), and identifying some opportunities (1 to 3 months) are clear. However, an area known as the messy middle (1 to 3 quarters) has been difficult to define, and product managers and teams aren’t always sure what they’re meant to be working on or how it aligns with everything else.
The messy middle can also be viewed using mandate levels. Here all levels of work are happening at the same time.
For example, product teams may have tasks as part of their bets and experiments:
- Build exactly this [to a predetermined specification]
- Build something that does [specific behavior, input-output, interaction]
As part of potential opportunities, tasks may include:
- Solve this [more open-ended customer problem]
And for overall business strategy, goals may look like:
- Directly generate [ short-term business outcome]
- Generate [long term business outcomes]
What ends up happening, says John, is that despite product managers continually shipping products they don’t see any major results.
Needing to think big and work small
John suggests that product managers need four things to fix the issue of the messy middle:
- A compelling strategy
- A persistent model (e.g. North Star and Inputs)
- Opportunity focused bets
- The freedom and ability to work small
How to grow plants
To illustrate the need to shift from the messy middle, John uses an example of growing plants. If you wanted to grow a plant, you would construct a mental model of its needs, such as light, the right temperature, and water. The latest hacks for gardening, equipment, and more than you can use to help them grow are simply influence factors. These factors may change, but the primary model or North Star for how plants grow doesn’t change. Between these hacks and models will be OKRs and time-based goals to keep you on track.
When it comes to product, the model is an example of thinking big, experiments and hacks are how you work small, and then OKRs keep everything on track.
Product managers need to shift from creating feature factories or a black box of siloed time-based goals to a persistent and transparent model that captures the organization’s beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses. This helps to explain how value is created and aligns for sustainable mid to long-term growth.
John shares an example of a DIY-CO and how they would apply the principles. The first step is to identify the people involved, the product promise, and a set of inputs or pieces of the puzzle. In order to reach the overall business strategy, a North Star is defined to create context. While there will be variations in how to tackle a problem, the product promise remains the same. There may also be opportunities to create experiments. These experiments should be given OKRs that map back to the product purpose and align with key objectives, rather than being hacked on at the end.
The key takeaways from this talk are that with a shift in thinking, product managers can move from working as a factory line and towards sustainability instead by taking the time to learn and aligning experiments with the overall strategy to shed some light on the messy middle.
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Developing digital products isn’t a linear path. Instead, optimization should be viewed as a flywheel—an ongoing virtuous loop that identifies the motions and events driving your product strategy.
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