Neither art nor science — a peculiar product philosophy


I am starting to think I need to stop referring to myself as a ‘product manager’ as increasingly I find myself wondering where I fit in to the profession.

science
a systematically organised body of knowledge on a particular subject.

On the one hand there is an increasing trend of cookie cutter product ‘owners’ educated in the Scrum method and proudly displaying their certificates. This is a process driven, systematic approach to the mechanics of ‘product’. There are certainly some benefits to the consistency of approach this provides organisations and individuals but it isn’t something I am comfortable with or to be honest that interested in.

There is a bottomless pit of tools, frameworks, systems, approaches, processes and techniques just out there waiting to be dipped into. No two teams are the same nor are any two products when you get into it so I want to just reach for the best tools for the job on the team for the people in front of me. I want to control the ways of working to get the best results — not follow a path written by someone who never met me and my team.

There is also a growing trend for metrics driven product management. I am torn about this — I like the idea of being ‘data informed’ (I’m a big fan of the Jim Barksdale quote → “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”) but I do think there is a certain tyranny with metrics and they should be used carefully and sparingly — remember ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.

art
works produced by human creative skill and imagination.

That said I am also not someone who is able to rely on instincts and ‘gut feel’ despite what I sometimes seem to be suggesting! There is definitely a need for creative thinking and imagination in ‘product’ work — you need to visualise and articulate that vision, find the words to communicate to everyone involved and sometimes fill in the gaps when all you have to show are lines of code and Post-It notes. This is nearer art than science and it isn’t something that is adequately covered in those ‘certifications’.

Being creative alone isn’t enough though — it needs reigning in. You need the constraints of a ‘minimal viable bureaucracy’ to give things guard rails and structure.

philosophy 
a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.

My favourite take on being a product person in public service came from Ross Ferguson — it is these principles that underpin my whole philosophy and it is a philosophy I follow rather than anything else — it is an ‘attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.’ I don’t always live up to it but this is how I try to work and what I try to pass on to other product people transitioning from other roles →

  • Lead without authority
  • Take blame, give credit away
  • Make good decisions with imperfect information
  • Prepare for what’s next
  • Navigate through mistakes and crises
  • Operate optimally under pressure
  • Prioritise people