Achieve your product goals without losing yourself along the way
Creating a new product starts with excitement and the thrill of doing something different. The launch of the product is surrounded by cheers. For many product managers, it is the best part of their work. But between the project start and the launch is where the hard work occurs. It is the messy middle, full of rocky terrain that is woefully underestimated and misunderstood.
The Messy Middle is also the name of a new book by my guest, Scott Belsky. Scott is the chief product officer of Adobe and founder of Behance, the leading creative network used by more than 12 million professionals. Scott has guided many teams through the messy middle of new product projects and ventures. In the interview, we’ll address a few of the topics from this book, including:
- Build your narrative before your product,
- Make one subtraction for every addition,
- Do the work that needs to get done—even if it’s not your job, and
- Identify what you’re willing to be bad at.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:00] Can you tell us about your role as Chief Product Officer at Adobe?
My obsession is building products that enhance the customer experience. Adobe’s products serve a large portion of the creative world. I started in this role 9 months ago to help make sure Adobe is ready for the next generation of customers. Adobe acquired Behance, the company I founded. I helped Adobe move its tools into the cloud and make them easier to use for people once they got there. We’re also exploring new mediums like augmented reality. I was lucky to find a role that excited me in the short term and the long term.
[4:17] Who is your book written for?
The book is the outcome of years of writing down notes from meetings of boards that I’m on, as well as my own entrepreneur journey. I realized I had insight into what people were doing in the middle of projects that worked for them or worked against them. The book brings those insights together to navigate the volatility that people must endure when building a product or launching a new venture.
[7:25] What do you mean by building the narrative before you build the product?
I encourage product teams to put together the mock-up of the splash page for the product before they even start building anything. This helps them narrow down the focus and determine what you want the customer to experience. This becomes a compass when it comes to prioritizing features. Uber did this when they were determining whether the company should be everyone’s private driver and more upscale or taxis on demand that were accessible to everyone. The decision about which type of message they were sending dictated how the rest of the product was developed. They chose “everyone’s private driver” and chose the branding accordingly.
[11:50] How should product managers think about additions and subtractions?
Simplicity is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. We often deal with problems and difficult decisions by adding complexity. The product eventually becomes so complicated that customers flock to more simple alternatives. I recommend that whenever you are adding a new feature, ask if there is another feature you can remove. Do this knowing that the more complex a product becomes, the more likely some customers are to turn away from it. Behance used to have a tip exchange that we killed because it wasn’t part of the company’s core mission. When we killed it, we found an increase in the product’s core features.
[17:03] How do you deal with people who say “that’s not my job”?
In my experience, some of the greatest work is done by people doing work they don’t have to do. Those people are passionate enough about something to seek it out and have a fresh perspective that is helpful to the rest of the team. This is easy to say and hard to do. Most people’s jobs have more than enough work to keep them busy and you might receive pushback from your colleagues who feel you are encroaching on their territory. The team also needs to have a culture to accept everyone’s ideas.
[20:41] How do you help people identify the things they are bad at?
It’s impossible to be good at everything, but we still try. You end up being OK at everything but not really great at anything. Southwest did this when they listed their core values. They figured out what made them different and focused solely on those features, getting rid of other things in the process. Vimeo did this when we decided we didn’t need to be the best video platform for everyone; we should instead focus on complex, highly-produced videos. If you’re trying to be too accommodating, you can’t discern who your target audience is.
[26:11] How does the Hero’s Journey relate to product management?
A lot of the personal transformation happens in the moments we want to forget, rather than those we choose to remember. When you’re overwhelmed with self-doubt and uncertainty working in complete anonymity, you have revelations about how you want to lead and move forward. This happens often during the messy middle of projects. After a low point, you have to encourage your team to take those feelings and carry them forward even though they’ll want to forget about it. This will help everyone stay humble and pay attention to the competition.
“It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen.” -Scott Belksy
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it on your favorite social network.