What science fiction taught me about product management
When I am not working in product management or reading, thinking, and writing about it, I read quite a bit of speculative fiction, mostly science fiction. As I was reflecting on what makes a good science fiction story, I realized that some of the ingredients apply to aspects of product management too.
I believe that a good science fiction novel has several important ingredients: world building, a compelling plot, story telling that weaves it all together, and of course great writing style. The ingredients are all interconnected: in a great science fiction story, they all work together to deliver an enjoyable, immersive reading experience that lets the reader live in worlds completely unlike our own.
The first ingredient of a science fiction novel is the world building. The world building is what sets speculative fiction apart from most other fiction. In the majority of other genres, readers can assume that the world is mostly like the world they live in — the same laws of nature, the same general rules and norms, etc., still apply. There is of course world building also in other literary genres, but the world rests on a solid scaffolding of some fundamental assumptions underlying our own world.
In speculative fiction, while the world that is being built needs to be related to our world, with recognizable elements, it must also break with some fundamental assumptions. The assumptions being broken may be of physical nature (e.g., travel beyond the speed of light), of societal nature (e.g., Dune’s quasi-feudal society or the Handmaid’s Tale’s fundamentalist state), or simply natural, man-made, or alien disasters that change the course of history.
The degree of completeness of this world-building varies. Some novels are very hand-wavy (“parallel universes exist and mankind has learned to travel to them”), and on the other side of the spectrum the so called “hard” science fiction novels take painstaking care to give logical explanations for the laws of nature and technological developments that govern their world.
Good science fiction novels will have a world that is reasonably complete (no gaping holes that make the world completely unbelievable or impossible to understand) and internally consistent (no parts of the world disagree with or are incompatible with each other).
The second ingredient of a science fiction novel is the plot. The plot is the main story line, what “happens” in the story. Of course, every novel has a plot. In fact, the plot of a science fiction story doesn’t need to be different than the plot of any other story. Often, the basic plot devices will be the same as they would be in other genres.
A good plot is relatable. It speaks to the human condition, the basic needs, hopes and desires that we all have. By resonating with readers, the plot is what keeps them interested and pulls them into the world that is being built. Without a compelling plot, the science fiction novel is just a compendium of the world.
The best science fiction stories do not have completely generic plots. Instead, they link the plot to the unique possibilities opened up by the world being built and the assumptions that the world has broken. This is the tension and the balance that the plot of a good science fiction novel needs to achieve: on one hand, it needs to be relatable enough that the reader can empathize and feel like they are part of the story. The reader needs to be able to envision how they would act in the situation. On the other hand, the plot needs to be somewhat specific to and uniquely enabled by the world it is set in, a world that is inherently unfamiliar to the reader. That is what makes it a science fiction story. Without the clear link to the world, the story is just a “space opera” — a generic plot set in a futuristic world.
The third ingredient is story telling. Story telling is the way in which the reader is being led through the plot and the world. In contrast to many other genres, science fiction does not only have to narrate the plot. It also has to gradually reveal the world that the plot takes place in.
The combined story telling of plot and world is what separates the wheat from the chaff. The best science fiction novels manage to do this in a seemingly effortless, seamless way: while the user is captivated by the plot, they also bit by bit discover the world and which assumptions hold and which ones are broken. In bad science fiction novels, major parts of the plot can’t be understood without having first gotten a solid grasp of the world — these novels may require checking glossaries, skipping back and forth, or lengthy explanations of the world that don’t advance the plot.
In good science fiction stories, the gradual narration and discovery of the world and its rules is part of the enjoyment of the story. They create a string of questions that the reader can soon discover the answers to, following a pattern of “but, why X? — ah, I see! but then, why Y? — ah, I see!”. Bad science fiction stories require the user to skip out of the flow of the story to get the answers to these questions.
The last ingredient contributing to the quality of a science fiction novel is style. This is simply the way that language is being employed to tell the story. Is it being told in first or third person? Using short or long sentences? With plain and simple language or rich and flowery?
There are objective quality criteria for some aspects of style. For example, outside of very specific exceptions, good novels avoid repetition, redundancy, needless complexity, and clichés.
The style of a novel must also fit with the story telling — a fast paced story will require different style than a slow one, one told from the point of view of a human a different one than that told from the point of view of a synthetic lifeform.
Lastly, large aspects of style are also subjective — different people may enjoy different styles of writing. This makes it impossible to fully judge style in terms of its quality.
What does this all have to do with product management?
I promised there would be a product management angle to all this.
Product management fundamentally requires conjuring worlds that are not reality yet and then bringing them to life — whether that’s just about new features or entirely new products. This requires developing a vision of how things might be once the product comes into existence. It also in many case requires identifying assumptions that are generally held to be true and breaking them. Consider Airbnb, for example: “what if people didn’t stay in hotels, but in other people’s houses?”
This is the world building that product managers embark on.
This vision then needs to be made relatable by linking it with the experiences, needs, and problems that people face today. People need to be able to envision their role in relation to the vision and how they would act in the world of that vision.
That is the plot that product managers must come up with.
Product managers then need to form a compelling narrative around their world/vision and the plot in order to tell it to everyone who is involved in the process. This ranges from executives and other stakeholders over team members through to customers and the broader public.
Ths is the story telling that product managers need to engage in.
Lastly, that story needs to be delivered with the right style, using the right medium, format, and even words in order to be effective.
What can product managers learn from good science fiction?
Now that we’ve seen how product managers are essentially telling science fiction stories, we can take the ingredients of great science fiction stories and apply them to the stories that product managers tell.
Firstly, the world (/ vision) needs to be consistent. Widely held assumptions can be broken, that’s the whole point of science fiction (and of developing innovative products), but it needs to be clear what replaces them. Also, the broken assumptions shouldn’t lead to inconsistencies and gaps. These gaps make the world less believable or lead to different interpretations as people try to patch over the holes, which could lead them to go off in different directions.
The plot, the story line of how the vision relates to people’s experience and needs today, needs to build a bridge between the current world and that of the vision. Now, in contrast to a science fiction novel, the plot of the product is only being written / discovered. As new team members and stakeholders get involved, product managers will often have to recount what happened so far — a plot recap, in other words. In these instances, it is particularly important to ensure the starting point of the plot relates to the lived experience, and not to pick up mid way.
In terms of telling the story of the world (vision) and plot (people’s relationship to that vision), it is crucial to pick up people where they are today and not overwhelm them. This is related to the gradual revelation of the plot and world. If you jump the gun and try to reveal the entire plot and world at once, you will lose the people you are trying to convince. (Of course, your story should be much shorter than the length of the average science fiction novel, I am not suggesting you take several hours to reveal your complete vision.)
Lastly, your story telling and communication style should be on one hand tailored to the recipient (subjective aspects of good communication) but also following a high standard for the given communication medium and format (objective aspects of good communication).
In summary, Product management is a role that requires aligning team members and stakeholders along a common vision and then jointly discovering the plot to make that vision a reality. This job requires a great deal of persuasion — that the world of the vision can be willed into existence, that assumptions can be broken, and that the team can close the gap between today and the world of the vision. Story telling is one of the most powerful means of persuasion, and science fiction writers have understood how they can convince their readers of the possibility of visionary worlds that break with fundamental assumptions. Product managers that can harness that same power are well positioned to successfully bring their visions to life.