Finding Lessons on Product in an Unexpected Place

I have a three-year-old daughter who absolutely loves books.  We have a lot of kids books. After a few years of reading multiple kids books each night I began to notice something.  Kids books posses deep wisdom and insight stripped to its essential form.  Kids haven’t collected the baggage that adults have and thus lack some of the healthy skepticism we’ve built up in our lives.  As a result, they are able to consume the basics without needing 200 pages of background and examples. Kids books have been written to help make sense of the world, to teach language, culture, social norms and very often - to inspire.    They are beautiful in their simplicity.  Below are a few of my favorites and their applicability to product design, innovation, development and management.  The next time you are looking for some good insights, but can’t squeeze in a heavy read, consider reading one of these with your kids instead.

“Its ok to be afraid.  But it’s more fun to surf!” 

Pete the Cat at the Beach In Pete the Cat at the Beach, Pete goes to the beach with his family.  He does a lot of fun things, but each time he is asked to go in the water he says “maybe later”.  Meanwhile Pete’s brother Bob is in the water all day surfing.  Eventually Pete gets so hot he’s willing to push past his fear and go for a swim.  This time when Bob asks him to surf he says “Let’s do it!”  Pete tries once and falls - tries again and loves it.  He spends the rest of the day surfing with his brother Bob. 

In product leadership roles you’re regularly presented with opportunities to get in and surf –some are tough calls, and many are scary.  How much opportunity is there in this adjacent market?  Should we create a new product? Is this feature really needed by our customers? Are we really ready to ship?  Each one takes careful consideration and its easy to put off a decision out of fear.  However, without a decision the situation will become tense enough that action is forced.  What I’ve often found is that these are the best moments of the profession.  These are the moment that you remember years later, the ones that shape your career trajectory, the ones where you really figure out what you’re doing.  You’ve likely even fallen a few times, but its definitely more fun to get out there and surf.

“We do not talk of buildings in here!” 

Iggy Peck the ArchitectIggy Peck the Architect is the story of a brilliant young man with a passion for architecture.  His passion grows until he meets Miss Lila Greer – “We do not talk of buildings in here!  Gothic or Romanesque, I couldn’t care less about buildings – ancient or new.”  We learn that Miss Lila Greer’s issue with architecture is driven by a traumatic childhood experience involving an architect’s tour of the 95th floor where she was lost for two days and found sharing cheese with a French circus troupe.  

Iggy’s passion is quashed and his days are mundane.  Until opportunity strikes and on an afternoon picnic to an island park the bridge collapses trapping the class.  Miss Greer faints, but Iggy takes action.  He leads the kids to construct a new bridge of shoestrings and rudimentary materials allowing them to safely get back to the mainland.  Miss Lila Greer then realizes perhaps she has been wrong, and her class should include lessons about building not just buildings, but dreams. 

If you are in Product at some point you’ve likely worked with a leader who thinks your profession’s contribution is useless.  You struggle mightily to overcome this apparently innate belief.  There are exceptions, but the most common reason for this belief – a traumatic experience from the past called bad product management.  Bad product management can wreak all kinds of havoc on an organization.  Perhaps like Iggy you’ll be given the opportunity to build a metaphorical shoe-string bridge that gets the person to come around, but maybe not.  However, realizing that the past is the source for someone’s opposition to your role is extremely valuable in crafting the approach to overcome that belief.  You can use that as a frame of reference you can build from and begin to architect many shoestring bridges to help them realize the value of good product management.  Remember that as a Product professional you are a diplomat - empathy, understanding, and conversations are powerful tools. Building a personal relationship with those who often oppose your existence in an organization allows them to see your role differently, and for you to see them differently.  It humanizes your relationship and you’re no longer just another ‘product’ person espousing your beliefs – but instead a knowledgeable human trying to do what’s best for the customer.

“It showed me how to walk on my hands.  ‘Because’, it said ‘it is good to have the ability to see things differently’”

What Do you Do With an Idea In What Do you Do With an Idea a young child is suddenly struck by the presence of something odd and new - an idea.  It appears small and fragile.  The child doesn’t know what to do with an idea, and simply walks away.  But, the idea follows the child.  Something about the idea was intriguing and magical.  So the child decides to keep it around and nurture it.  But then fear begins to creep in.  The child thinks others will laugh and criticize, which they of course do.  But he’s wise enough to realize it’s ‘MY’ idea and others don’t need to understand it.  The idea is nurtured until one day suddenly it’s no longer ‘here’, it’s ‘everywhere’.  The child is then struck by perhaps the greatest epiphany any person can have – what do you do with an idea?  “You change the world.” 

Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom’s What Do You Do with and Idea is arguably my favorite kids book.  The relevance of its message is really hard to miss.  But, how often do we really take an idea and realize this message. We all know that a great idea has real power.  The key word in the epiphany is ‘change’.  It’s not good enough to simply have an idea.  It has to be nurtured; it has to be built up, given a home, protected from the detractors who will attempt to crush it before it can take hold.  That takes far more than a thought - it takes follow through.  The ideas that change the world rarely arose for the first time in the mind of the innovator who actually changed the world.  Think of the classic examples, Thomas Edison and the light bulb, Steve Jobs and the MP3 player, Sergey Brin and Larry Page with Search.  These innovators had a follow through that took an idea and nurtured it to the point that it fundamentally changed the world.  You cannot just have an idea you have to cultivate it, build it, and actually drive to the point where it can change the world.

“The only true failure can come if you quit”

Rosie Revere Engineer The story of Rosie Revere Engineer is that of a quiet young second grader who is shy by day, but builds by night.  Her engineering creations are quite clever, but always hidden.  We learn that this was not always the case.  She used to build proudly until one day someone laughed at her invention.  Rosie was crushed and kept her building a secret until her great-great aunt Rose came for a stay.  Rose was no ordinary great-great aunt – she used to build airplanes and is inspired by Rosie the Riveter. Rosie attempts to build her a flying machine, which ultimately fails to fly.  Rosie is devastated but Rose quickly hugs her and says – “It crashed that is true.  But first it did just what it needed to do.  Before it crashed, Rosie… before that… it flew!...Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!”

Rosie’s realization is that great products aren’t great from the start.  They take iteration after iteration to perfect.  The lesson her great –great aunt teaches her is widely acknowledged, but not so often found in practice.  Rapid prototyping is the quickest way to learn what really does and does not work in the real world.  Software is uniquely positioned to execute on this need, and if you think you can’t pull it off in your domain, just check out what Tom Chi has been able to do with products like Google Glass.   As Chi notes, rapid prototyping does not just happen; it requires a shift from a culture of right and wrong to a culture of learning. A culture where failure paired with many learnings is considered more valuable than success with only one learning.   Great-great Aunt Rose understood this, a failed iteration where something is learned isn’t really a failure, it’s only a failure if you stop learning, if you stop building – it’s only really a failure if you quit.