In this #mtpcon Digital 2020 keynote, Matt LeMay, author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice discusses the importance of recognising and resolving a fundamental tension product people face when seeking individual recognition.
Watch the video to see his talk in full. Or read on for an overview of his key points:
- Recognising the tension of attaining individual vs team recognition
- Adopting incompleteness as a trigger for action
- Taking the One Page, One Hour pledge
The Existentials of Success
Matt begins by examining the anxieties he experienced early in his product career. These lead him to ask himself existential questions like, “does anyone recognise or appreciate the work that I do?” and “am I doing everything completely wrong?”.
It wasn’t until Matt attended ProductTank meetups that he realised how universal his insecurities were. It’s not surprising: “Our roles are highly variable, inconsistent, and ambiguous”, he explains, “they’re different from team to team, from organisation to organisation or even from day to day,” – just ask five product managers what they do.
What is consistent, whether you’re an assistant product manager or a CPO, is that “your individual success is realised through your teams’ work”. And while your own work is directly beneficial to the team, you’re rarely able to demonstrate it when justifying your career existence.
That’s where the tension arises.
The Tension of Acknowledgement
Earning recognition is hard. In pre-Covid times, product managers would perhaps be acknowledged for their ambient activities: head-scratching, dashboard scanning, or scribbling on whiteboards. Now working remotely, we need to advocate for ourselves more than ever.
Product people deliver value by employing tactical skills to ensure developers understand our strategic direction, so that their code successfully realises designs and requirements. Unfortunately, these high value actions will rarely be recognised.
Says Matt: “For better or worse, documents and deliverables are the best available paths to individual recognition.” But it can be the detriment of our mission, delivering little value to the business or its customers, and can take us away from our ability to work together towards delivering value.
So how can we resolve this tension?
Incomplete by Design
Referencing the 2008 paper Incomplete by Design and Designing for Incompleteness, Matt shares a quote: “Rather than pose a threat, incompleteness acts as a trigger for action.”
This “kind of mind-blowing” fundamental changed Matt’s way of approaching docs and deliverables. Rather than crafting something unquestionable, unobjectionable, full of fixed assumptions, Matt shows how doing the opposite – intentionally creating something incomplete – encourages participation, and shifts the focus from ownership to cooperation.
While incompleteness may sound scary, because you may have to disrupt your own workplace, Matt shows that it isn’t by sharing the analogy of a game called Mad Libs. It’s a game where players prompt one another to provide words to fill a blank-spaced story, creating together. What’s clear is how structural incompleteness becomes collaborative and generative, allowing for unexpected innovations.
How do we constrain our own incompleteness?
One Page, One Hour
With his business partner Tricia Wong, Matt developed the One Page, One Hour pledge; agreeing to a physical and temporal constraint, while focusing on collaboration and creative synthesising, as opposed to self-serving reward seeking.
“That’s the beauty of creating something incomplete”, Matt says. It’s not intended to be final but it’s a way to drive organisational transformation, making people contribute in a passionate and engaged way; “my documents become our documents”.
As these ideas proliferate and expectations shift, we eventually get to a point where team success and individual recognition are moving in the same direction. Now our value is directly dependent on contributing to the success of our teams – insecurity is disrupted.