I said last week I’d write about why the complexity of product management means we don’t have good tools (yet). This is a complicated, perhaps complex, story in itself – which is not surprising, given that it’s a complex domain.  

Update: If you have a a limited amount of time, read the TL;DR version of this post.

Product Management As Writing A Book – An Extended Metaphor

As a way to approach product management tools and what we need from them, let’s think about the tools that writers have for writing. I’ve argued already (along with lots of others) that product management is a lot like writing a book – a good product, like a novel or biography, reflects a big, coherent idea, expressed in an appealing, engaging, comprehensive way, where all the strings are tied up the end.  Whether a book is well-written is apparent from the first page, and only the good ones are really satisfying – or make a difference in the world.  

Tools for writers are few and far between, and they fall into a few main camps:

4 Features Of Great Product Management Software – That None Has 1
Corkboard (image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/forestfortrees/ – CC 2.0 licensed)

This taxonomy is over-generalized, but the point is what these tools do is allow writers to capture a lot of ideas and rearrange them, elaborate them, and refine them until a story emerges. They do not do much for helping the writer make the creative leap. None of them focus on unblocking the creativity of the writer, except to the degree that they allow you to progress without actually writing (e.g., by making a mindmap, or an outline, or by rearranging cards, all of which can help in overcoming a creative block).

And they are not about automating a process in the normal sense of the word – first do this, then do that, then do this other thing if some condition exists. Once the book is written and accepted for publication, then there’s a process with steps, but not until then.

Many writers also form groups, go to retreats, cultivate readers, in order to have a collaborative environment.

Writers proceed by writing crappy first drafts and then revise, rework, reshuffle, reconceive, and other re’s. Writing a novel is by turns about idea gathering, prototyping (crappy first drafts), collaboration (writing group), and iteration (multiple drafts) process. And the outcome is emergent, not predictable or plannable.

And defining a product is the same. One of the many valuable ideas that agile methodologies surfaced for the product process is that a user story is the beginning of a collaboration, and only through that collaboration – with the developer, with the eventual user, with other stakeholders – is the feature defined. The Lean Startup concept says that your ideas are hypotheses that need to be tested with experiments to learn their value. Jeff Patton’s story map approach takes us even closer to the world of writing tools, essentially providing a good way to “corkboard” our user stories.

The Advantages of Being A Product Manager Versus An Author

On the other hand, as product managers we have a couple of major advantages over novelists. For one thing, we don’t have to produce art to be successful – as long as our product is significantly better than its competitors, better at providing value, better at fitting into the customers’ processes, better at doing its job – it will can be successful, even if it’s not a Hemingway or a Franzen.

Our other big advantage is that we are already part of a team. Novelists don’t have a group of people who are rewarded for helping them create an excellent, marketing-leading novel. This gives us a big leg up on the collaboration part of the story.

4 Features That Product Management Software Needs

Given all that, here are four capabilities or activities that really helpful product management tools would support – in addition to capturing our user stories:

  • Help us collaborate
  • Help us get past the “blank page”
  • Help us remember to use our creativity unblockers
  • Help us iterate, elaborate, and rearrange on our ideas and features in a more managed way

I have a lot more thinking on this topic, which I’ll get to in future posts. In the meantime, if you think I’m on the right track, or on the wrong track, or just smoking dope, I’d love to hear your thoughts about product management tools and complexity.

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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  • Great post. Some follow up questions:
    – Help us collaborate with whom? Internally? With customers?
    – "Help us remember to use our creativity unblockers" >> can you expand upon this? examples?

    • Steven – great questions – I'll elaborate a bit here, and then followup with more complete answers as new posts.

      * Collaboration: I usually am thinking of internal collaboration when I make this point – the round and round of design and review and elaboration that occurs among peers like other product managers, developers, and designers. A lot of tools have a comment thread that is step 0.1 for this type of collaboration. One thing that's missing is support for moving parts of the comment thread back into the story itself. Some other limitations of a comment thread are that it's usually just text, it's synchronous (i.e., back and forth) and not realtime, it's usually not social-ified (supporting "likes" and things like that). One new take on comments is the one used by Medium.com, where you comment on individual paragraphs, and there is no commenting on the article as a whole. That's interesting, although I don't know why you wouldn't have both.

      My gut feel is that the collaboration with outside stakeholders like customers is a bit different. But I'll have to think about this in more depth – some customers are great for substantive feedback even on a barely formed feature idea.

      * Regarding the creativity unblockers – I wrote about some of these in a post a few weeks ago. A few things I think could be automated better are the idea of crappy first drafts (i.e., make sure no one sees this until I have polished it a bit, along with a "tickler" feature to help me get me back to it), integration with ideation tools like mindmapping and outlining, and some kinds of gentle guidance such "when shall I remind you to look at this again?" or "which customers will use this feature?" – kind of "solution prompters."

  • I don't really agree, as you can see in my recent posts about complexity and Cynefin. Product management as a domain is different from other domains for which business software has been created. There are best practices for areas like project management, and there's actually a right answer in accounting, but there aren't even good practices for product management. You can follow "the rules" and have a product failure, or not follow the rules and have a big success.

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