Platitude week

Martin Creed installation at Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand. Neon lights saying 'Everything is going to be alright'.
Martin Creed installation at Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand (more)

Well I’m excited to announce a new annual event on my blog.

It’s actually run daily on LinkedIn.

Only joking!

I thought this might be as good a day as any to try and select my favourite product platitudes (or sayings, slogans, truisms, guiding principles) which are actually true:

Fall in love with the problem and not the solution – this one came up in the article about AI the other day and I was really pleased to see it has been developed out by Uri from Waze who wrote a book about it. It is, I think, the best single-minded mantra for product people. And it has the added platitude / rent-a-quote distinction of being something Einstein sort of said: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.’ Einstein may not have meant quite the same thing but for product people the advice means:

  • Don’t fall in love with a particular solution
  • Don’t move away from the customer and their problem
  • Problems are complex and need to be broken down and understood at depth

I think it is fair to say that this sort of thing is easier when you’re devising (e.g.) Waze than perhaps when you’re doing something which fills a gap previously unfilled (e.g. Facebook) but nevertheless it drives all the right thoughts and processes. And it can pull us away from doggedly sticking with ideas because we thought of them.

Building the Right Product vs. Building the Product Right – I can’t remember where I heard this first. And whoever said it to me probably stole it themselves. This one is slightly less clear cut perhaps because it depends on what stage you’re at. And of course it doesn’t mean: ‘build the product wrong’. For me, this is about ensuring your have product-market fit before investing heavily in building. And like the first one it steers us away from an area that may be more psychologically comfortable. Many of us have decades of experience getting things done. We’re more comfortable there than with the uncertain world of testing ideas or (heaven forbid) rejecting them, so we go straight there. Technologist love to think about neater and neater solutions. So they sometimes jump in there too. But if you’re building the wrong thing, none of that really matters,

Eric Reiss nailed it when he said, “Because startups often accidentally build something nobody wants, it doesn’t matter much if they do it on time and on budget.” And also when he said: “The big question of our time is not Can it be built? but Should it be built?” – we have so much capacity with today’s technology to build almost anything. But we are interested in creating value, not creating stuff.

A Drucker quote to nail the point: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Facts not opinions – This is an archetypal platitude. It feels SO obviously true as to be hardly worth uttering. And yet it is probably the hardest piece of advice to stick to rigorously because it is so incompatible with the corporate world in which so many of us operate. And it sheds a light on a key challenge in genuinely embracing true product organisations – to do so we must exchange the more toxic cultures of command and control, HIPPO and, dare I say, old-fashioned masculine management with the more difficult yet more successful flatter structures. We must be prepared to tell our bosses and ourselves not just that we’re sometimes wrong, but that we shouldn’t have an expectation of being right (through intuition) in the future.

Shippy not Slidey – In product, it’s always easy to become a master at producing Powerpoint. And, on occasion, Excel. And these things are sometime absolutely necessary. But you create value by shipping things to your customers. Which are you? Are you truly focussed on shipping or have you been accidentally slipped into sliding?

Missionaries not mercenaries – Boom. Cagan nails it with this one (borrowed from John Doerr). Of course, some of it is about the stuff above – about what you chose to do. But mostly it’s about how you chose to do it:

  • Build long-lasting teams, that can form relationships and work out how to work together.
  • Give objectives not instructions. Not micromanaging, not expecting ideas to (always) flow down through an organisation.
  • See your responsibility as inspiring teams to understand problems and solve them – not to simply follow your instructions. And that’s true whatever your job is.
  • Motivate with positivity not fear

There is nothing as amazing as seeing self-managing teams, fired up with their mission, working together to achieve customer objectives.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast – It’s Drucker again who said this. I believe in 2006. He likely meant that culture was just as important as strategy but we’ve lived long enough to see the quote be even more powerful, with firms who recognise the fundamental weakness of planning cycles and top-down control in insanely volatile markets. We survive and win by finding ways that our customers – through our staff – can have almost instantaneous impact on our products and service.

Software eats everything / the world – Surely a fundamental truism of most of the transformations we have lived through. Without rehashing into the platitudes of Uber and AirBNB, we need only look at AWS to understand the enormous power of taking a thing that once was physical and time consuming and making it programmable and addressable by machines. We’re going through a brief spell of technophobia thanks to Open AI and the realisation of precisely this power, but I think when we look back at the innovations that happened in the and 2010s, 2020s, we will find the gravitation to software-addressability to be the great catalyst. This remains one of the best ways to deconstruct the industry you are in, and look for opportunities to improve outcomes for customers and consumers. (Came from Marc Andreessen)

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant – What Max De Pree lacked in poetry, he definitely made up for in being right! It might not fit on a t-shirt but this quote (with it’s vaguely Napoleonic overtones) is a great starting point for product leaders in creating the sort of humility needed to work with the best teams.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth – This (from Tyson) is the funnier version of the military adage ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. It is obviously essential information for everyone in product. It doesn’t mean: don’t plan. But it does mean that you should expect your plan to change. You should be ready to adapt.

Never Doubt That A Small Group Of Thoughtful Committed Citizens Can Change The World – This one is a bit unusual because it’s said by a fictional character, the great Jed Bartlet no less from the West Wing. The best president America never had. The punchline is ‘because it’s the only thing that ever has’. And that is exactly the spirit we need to build in our teams: faith in what’s possible, responsibility for making it happen and ensuring they feel supported in doing it.

What have I missed? There are certainly lots of things that lots of people say but few do really well or which are so vague as to be meaningless (the real platitudes): ‘customer focus!’, ‘agile!’, ‘transformation!’. But what are the t-shirt slogans which you actually go back to over and over again?

2 thoughts on “Platitude week”

  1. Amazing post Tom! One of those collections I guess where many of us have heard most of them (so we get to feel good about ourselves), but we all learn at least something new. For me, I’d never heard of “Shippy not Slidey” or “Missionaries not mercenaries” and I think they are absolute gold, so thank you.

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