People think about what they do and the world around them being as about a process or a project. Both in everyday life and in business. And this is a problem that to my great surprise few people are talking about or trying to solve.
I’ll try to convince you why product thinking is usually much more relevant to your goals and why process-oriented thinking could be a real problem.
Have you ever noticed how few online resources are dedicated to product management? And how so many are dedicated to project management? How rarely – and at times unclearly – people talk and write about product management? And how often and extensively they talk and write about project management in every detail?
The authors of project management books (especially those for novices) love to start with the idea that the world is made up of projects. Projects are everywhere. Preparing a meal? It’s a project. Being treated by a doctor? A project. Playing tennis or making love? These are all projects.
Of course, a musician hears music at each turn in everyday life, a cameraman analyzes the composition of the frame and a hairdresser gets to know people by their hairdo. But the world has taken this project mentality way too far. And the time has come to realize and change that!
We made projects at school. When we decide to implement a new idea, we say we’re starting a project. When telling a friend about some startup, we may call it a project. In interviews we describe the projects we have been involved in.
Sometimes we gladly argue about the best methodology (agile or otherwise) and we spend time choosing the best collaboration tool and searching for the best practices in project management.
Too often we are unnecessarily focused on the process rather than the end result. Without a good process it’s difficult to achieve a good result, but the resulting product itself is so much more important!
Let’s try to understand the specific advantages you stand to gain by properly focusing your attention.
1. Live Long and Prosper
Every project ends at some point. Truly successful products usually outlive their creators (in addition to the striking example of Steve Job’s products, we could mention Walt Disney, the Egyptian pharaohs and their pyramids, even Christ and his teachings, and so on).
If you’re focused on the project, you head toward the fact that sooner or later all of this is going to end. But in real life the end of the project is where everything just gets started.
If you’re focused on and think in the ‘product’s space’, you’ll push your mind to look a bit farther, mentally skipping the actual process of achieving the result, as if it had already been successfully executed.
This frees you from an attachment to any concrete methods of obtaining the result and gives you flexibility.
2. Show me the Money!
Cynical as it may sound, nobody today is weeping over the miserable slaves who died constructing the Egyptian pyramids and the other ancient wonders of the world. Nobody is trying to elucidate how effective production was. But everybody continues to be delighted by the results.
Nobody buys tomatoes for a 100 dollars if the same tomatoes are being sold nearby for five. If you can’t get a better cost than your competitors, you’re out of business – but that’s your problem. We have always and will always buy the products that are best for us based on our personal criteria of price, quality, and satisfaction. We don’t think much about what process led to the result.
We pay for the result.
By thinking the same way about your product, you will end up on the same page as your customer more often. And you’ll ask key questions more often – what should the product be? how much should it cost? how should we sell it? who needs it? how can it develop? – and build your processes based on the answers – instead of the other way around.
Your users don’t care one bit about which advanced programs you use for collaboration or how beautiful your burn-down diagrams are.
3. A Product is Concrete
A project can be stillborn or go on forever. It can be good, bad, frozen, complex, drawn out, interesting, depressing, difficult, expensive, complicated, cheap, and quite frequently cheap and interesting at first and then suddenly dull and expensive…
But a product either is or it isn’t.
A project is an abstract term for a big conglomeration of different processes. Managing these processes well during product development is critical, but it’s not always simple. It’s not always easy to understand the effectiveness of processes or to evaluate them. But in fact it’s not always necessary to do so.
A product either is or it isn’t. It can be bad, good, successful, a failure, irrelevant, red, defective, magnificent, etc. And evaluating a product is also not an easy task. Even a brick might have more than 100 parameters and criteria for evaluation.
The line between ‘there is a product’ and ‘there is not a product’ is typically extremely crisp. You can’t leap 95% of the way over a chasm.
And just this criterion alone yields a far clearer understanding and assessment of what is happening: to the extent we are working well, we are moving toward a goal. That is, if our end goal is some sort of product.
4. A Good Process Does not Guarantee the Desired Result
Moreover, sometimes a good result is achieved not thanks to, but in spite of, the process. One reason for this is the creative nature of the software development process. Internally, it’s much more like creating a painting or a movie than constructing prefabricated homes out of ready-made blocks.
You can take a proven plot, hire big-hair professionals, shell out truckfuls of cash for marketing and go down in flames. You don’t have to go far for examples: one and two, but you can create a highly successful film without a big budget(one, two and three.
The danger lies in the fact that the quality of the project may become the criteria for the success of some enterprise — how freaking awesome our daily meetings in front of our scrum boards are, how magnificently the code is documented and how snazzily communication has been set up between the design and marketing departments.
This can give the false sensation that everything is going well, that we’re moving down the correct path toward the right goal. But we’re too lazy or strapped for time to ponder, strategically nor operationally, on the goal itself or the actual product.
Obvious examples (besides those from Hollywood mentioned above) include: the Third Reich, USSR (trust me, I lived there!), loads of dotcom bubble startups, etc.
The world is a product
All of this has led me to one simple conclusion: The world is actually made up of products. Even you, dear reader, are the product of your parent’s love.
I’m also firmly convinced that no matter what you do (if your goal is to achieve some sort of concrete result in the form of a product), then the most important thing – and maybe the only thing – that you need to think about is the product itself. Or the part of it you’re working on.
Therefore, how to best organise the process to create the product is a technicality. Thousands of books have been written about this, explaining the same basic principles from different angles. Thousands of tools and methodologies have been created, for any subject area and for any taste. This ain’t rocket science!
If your team has a clear understanding of the product, then what the hell does it matter which tools and methods you use?
And that is the real tricky part, the key point to study, discuss and talk about – understanding your product.
PS: Please post your comments (or send me an email) with your criticisms and thoughts, it’s really important for me. And I hope you spread the word about this product thinking if you agree.