Product management strength and form

Mastering the two different types of product development work

One interesting and underreported aspect of product development and product management is that there are two fundamentally different types of product work. Both are required to build a successful product, and the best product teams and product managers have mastered both and know in which context to apply which.

Similar to a weightlifter’s strength and form, these two types need to work together to be successful. Without raw strength, a weightlifter won’t be able to lift any weights, and without the proper form, they won’t be able to apply that strength effectively (or worse, hurt themselves).

Product management has this set of complementary skills too: product management strength and form. There are several different axes along which they differ, which we will look at in the following.

Product management strength and form are like yin and yang: they complement each other, and for a great product, you need both.

Innovation and optimization

Product management strength and form differ in the main objective of the work: innovation versus optimization. Innovation, in this context, means discovering and developing novel solutions to relevant problems of our users’ and customers’ problems. Optimization means making sure those novel solutions work as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Really great products have both: they solve their customers’ problems better than any previously existing solution, and they do so in a way that is frictionless and delightful for the user and viable for the business. Consider Spotify: the innovation was streaming a vast catalog of music from the cloud instead of buying individual songs and albums and downloading them. Around that core innovation, there is a whole lot of optimization to make this core innovation a pleasure to use, perform well, and monetize effectively.

It becomes immediately evident, then, that innovation and optimization, like strength and form, are complementary. An innovative product that isn’t optimized will quickly he squeezed out of the market by fast followers. An optimized product that isn’t innovative will always be, at best, a copycat and ripe for disruption by the next wave of innovation.

Step changes and incremental changes

Product management strength and form don’t just vary in the objective, but also in how the work is best conducted. Innovation is often a step change or “big bang”, where a lot of pieces have to fit together to create something that is novel and better than what came before it. Optimization is best conducted in the form of many incremental changes, while measuring the impact on what should be optimized for.

Of course, in the process of getting to an innovation, there will be iterations and cycles as well. Even innovative products shouldn’t be built in a waterfall fashion (you could even argue that products built in a waterfall way are less likely to be innovative). However, to get to a true innovation, at some point, a bigger leap will have to be made where some old paradigm is replaced by a new paradigm. Consider the iPhone, perhaps the greatest digital product ever created. There were many aspects of the phone that saw endless iterations to get them to perfection (e.g., read about the onscreen keyboard in the book “Creative Selection”). However, the team didn’t iterate their way to a keyboardless, all-screen device. They didn’t increase the screen and reduce the number of buttons bit by bit. That aspect was a step change, breaking with the paradigm of keyboard-based input and replacing it with the finger-operated touchscreen.

Value creation and value extraction

Another way to think about product management strength and form is in terms of value creation and value extraction. Value creation for digital products generally means addressing user or customer needs in such a way that it creates a monetizable surplus of value (the user or customer is “better off” with the product than without). Value extraction means finding a way to turn some of that surplus into financial income for the product’s creators (monetization). That monetization can be direct (payment by the customer) or indirect (for example, through ads).

Value creation and value extraction don’t line up perfectly with innovation and optimization. You can optimize on the value creation side as well (for example, by reducing friction, increasing performance, etc.). Occasionally, there is innovation on the value extraction side as well, when completely new business models are established, for example if you consider the move from software being bought to the subscription models of SaaS. However, true innovation on the value extraction side is much rarer than on the value creation side.

People problems and product problems

Related to value creation and value extraction is the focus on people problems and product problems. A lot of product managers tend to think of their objectives primarily as product focused: increasing growth, engagement, retention, monetization, etc. However, value is created only if people problems are solved (people being users, customers, and/or other stakeholders).

The challenge with considering the solution of people problems one’s objective, of course, is that they are much less easily measured. Engagement and retention in the product, for example, are trivial to monitor in standardized ways, but determining how well you solved your users’ and customers’ problems often requires a more nuanced and qualitative approach.

Product indicators can of course serve as product for how well the people problems have been solved. In general, the argument is pretty strong that users probably wouldn’t be engaged and retained if the product didn’t provide value (= solve their problems). There are problems with this argument, though: firstly, it isn’t clear that these proxies are always good. The heated public discussion about social media and its drive for ever deeper engagement has made it clear that more engagement perhaps can’t always be considered beneficial to the user.

Secondly, there is a difference between the long term and the short term. While it might be true that indicators like engagement and retention represent how well the product solves people problems, that doesn’t always hold in the short term. Pushing up the number of push notifications that a mobile app sends, for instance, will often increase engagement in the short term (more notifications = more chances for users to tap on one = more visits to the product = more opportunities to engage), but rarely means that the actual people problems have now been solved in a better way.

This all is not to say that product managers should never consider product problems. In the spirit of strength and form, both are needed. Depending on the type of work, it might be more important to focus on product problems. However, defaulting to product problems because it is easily measurable how well they have been solved is not the correct approach.

Qualitative and quantitative insights

A last aspect in which product management strength and form differ is in their reliance on qualitative and quantitative insights. This aspect makes it abundantly clear that you always need both strength and form — specifically, any great product will be built and improved leveraging both qualitative and quantitative insights.

Quantitative and qualitative insights are always complementary: quantitative data tells you what is happening with the product, and you use qualitative research to find out why that is happening and where you might go next.

That said, certain types of product work lean more heavily on quantitative and others more on qualitative insights. Optimizing an e-commerce checkout flow, for example, will rely heavily on data, measuring the conversion from step to step in the funnel to identify improvement potential and validate whether changes have improved conversion rates. In contrast, if you build a completely new product from scratch, you will need to rely on more qualitative insights at first, like building prototypes and testing them with potential users. In both cases, the “other” kind of insight will enrich the discussion, though: for example, usability testing your checkout flow will yield insights into potential improvements, and quantifying the potential market for a new product before you start can help validate whether the product is even potentially worth investing in.

There are a couple of ways in which product teams can go wrong with balancing qualitative and quantitative insights. An obvious problem in today’s data driven product culture is relying overly on quantitative validation methods to determine what does and doesn’t get shipped. I call this “The A/B Testing Trap”. A product organization falling into the A/B testing trap believes in measuring the impact of everything they do quantitatively. The result is that incremental optimization efforts, which are easier and more likely to “win” A/B tests, get unconsciously prioritized over innovative step changes.

On the flip side, product organizations sometimes mistake subjective convictions for qualitative evidence. In other words, they let their own beliefs bias what they hear and see from the market. Of course, having convictions is in general a good thing, and the best products are created by believing something that the market doesn’t yet believe but can be convinced of. However, if your convictions make you blind to what customers are telling you, then you are not relying on qualitative evidence, you are just succumbing to your biases. Collecting meaningful qualitative evidence, in that way, is much harder than quantitative evidence: numbers just aren’t subject to the same biases that human beings are.

Putting it together: Strength and form

Let’s look at all of these axes together and tie them back to our original weightlifter’s strength and form. Product management strength falls more on the side of innovation, value creation, people problems, qualitative, and step changes. Product management form falls more on the side of optimization, value extraction, quantitative, and incremental changes.

As mentioned above, there is no right or wrong here. Both strength and form are required for a great product. What is most important is recognizing what type of product problem you are facing, and then adjusting your toolkit accordingly. Are you working on a problem with a focus on innovation? You probably should be relying more on qualitative than on quantitative insights, and think more about people problems than about product problems. Are you working on a problem related to value extraction? Then your approach should probably more incremental than “big bang”.

Often, individual product managers will be stronger or more experienced in one of the two. That in and of itself is fine, you just need to beware of the “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” syndrome. It can often be helpful to limit switching between the two types too much, for example by having different teams that are more strength or form focused.

By now it should have become clear how great products require both strength and form. Product managers should be mindful of their own experiences, strengths, and gaps when it comes to the two sides of the coin, and constantly re-evaluate whether they are using the right approach for the problem at hand. Product leaders should aim to build teams, culture, and processes that allow both of these types of product work and the people with the respective skill sets to flourish.

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