Friday, July 05, 2013

The Art of Synthesis

I was reading this excellent article about how important it is for product managers to say 'No' and realized how many times I've read articles, posts, and heard lectures with the same message. Clearly this is an important discipline and big problem for product managers and development organizations—otherwise, why would so many people talk about it? Here's my take on the subject (apologies in advance to my product team who has had to listen to various renditions of this point of view from me recently).

I agree with all the pitfalls of ad hoc feature addition described in the article by Des Traynor. Great product design (I'm talking holistic design, not just UX or software architecture) doesn't come from a democratic system. It relies on the vision of the product manager/designer and that person's ability to crystalize and vividly convey the vision to a team. During implementation, details of what gets built will probably vary from the original vision, and the vision itself will evolve during iterative development, but the strength of the vision remains the single most important factor to the creation of a remarkable product.

Synthesis. Get it?

This doesn't mean I believe good products are conceived of by a product designer who works in a vacuum. Quite the opposite—and this is what makes product design so hard. Product designers must immerse themselves in a sea of input—from colleagues, customers, prospects, and the market. They must synthesize all this input into a vision that can be effectively delivered. The vision has to be sufficiently detailed, complete, and rational to thwart the onslaught of "oh, but you forgot about this!" and the various other concerns that Des talks about in his post. People—some of the most valuable in the organization—invariably play the role of the foil during the synthesis process. Thank them for that, as it helps you solidify your vision. But don't succumb to them. Your vision is strong and fully formed, and you must repeat it loudly and frequently for all to hear. There will be a cacophony of voices who will cloud the vision in the minds of stakeholders, so you must reaffirm and refine the picture in your head and find new and more effective ways to share it more loudly than all those other voices.

I don't blame the voices who cloud the vision or consider them evil saboteurs. Sometimes through analogy and the superficial treatment given the subject in posts like these we paint a black and white picture that casts them as the bad guys. They are not—they have a valid perspective and valid concerns. This is another thing that makes the product designer/manager/owner role so hard. Your vision and the effectiveness of how you convey it must allow those stakeholders to know that their input has been heard, considered, and played some role in the synthesis process. Each of their asks are likely not going to be addressed directly, and some might not be addressed at all. The power and integrity of your product vision must be great enough to let them know that their input was incorporated, if not literally, in what you are building.

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