Can Lean Product Management be Holistic?

Product Management’s journey has been on a winding road. Procter & Gamble coined the term ‘Product Management’, P.M., eight decades ago with a single aim of minimizing failure in production and operations. P.M. became well adopted but surprisingly only in marketing teams that focused on only the place, promotions, and pricing.

When product management entered the tech market, it was laborious! Development was slow. It required massive documentation for the managers. Once done, PMs then opened the tap and let the ‘Waterfall’ plunge into engineering departments. The story usually ended with a peculiar situation:

The product would then be sitting on a table with P.M. and engineers on each side, staring at it only to realize it was completely different than what they both anticipated.

Fast forward through Scrum phase, and enter Lean era: P.M. role has now evolved to a Sub-CEO role. PMs set up the table. They decide who sits around it! They define the key matrices around what success means. PMs now cover far more than marketing. They articulate a product, roadmap it. They hold a products hand from ideation to execution. They ask the right question and more importantly they align various teams. They do all of this, in most cases, without even having direct reports.

The not so obvious issue is that the nature of Lean requires constant iteration. Uncle Lean embraces failures to increase value capture but there are crucial risks he is missing:

Iteration is not Innovation

Product teams use iteration to implement customer needs optimally via trial+error. The common perception is that the iterative cycles are innovative: iteration brings innovation. What this argument lacks is the fact that iterative cycle is constrained with one axiom ie one proposition. This cycle basically looks at the pain, then offers an axiom: a solution for the pain. So it first innovates a solution for the pain, then iterates versions to optimize.

While this approach is truly amazing for solutioning a product, it only focuses on the pain rather than the cause: Back in 2014 Amazon spent 2 years on re-iterating Amazon Fire. Bezos was convinced that “it will take many iteration to get it right”. Amazon invested 7 figures on Fire with no ROI.

What is more interesting is that these major failure do not make it out — there are no press tractions for them. Here is a glimpse of the big list from Alphabet (Google) only:

BufferBox, Currents, Dodgeball, Dual OS Tablets, Froogle, Google Answers, Google Catalogs, Google CheckOut, Google Code, Google Coupon, Google Glass, Google Hangout over Air, Google HelpOut, Google Viewer, Jaiku, Page Creator, Picasa, Search Wiki.

Enter Holistic Iteration

The process of iteration relies on the need only. It does not expand any solution horizons. It works around one axiom and does not consider alternatives.

I argue that iteration almost always is mutually exclusive from innovation. Real innovation comes out of great conception and design from the very first step. If the strategy is not incorporating user pain and the cause, no matter how iterative product development is, there will be no innovation:

Iterating without strategy design, fuels failure!

Innovation drives iteration and it is iterative itself. That itself is the basis of a future holistic approach in product dev. Holistic management will require an understanding of not only customer needs but also of what causes the pain. In some extreme cases, product teams need to ignore the need and work on the cause to see a bigger picture of the issue.

A holistic incorporation of the entire picture will invite alternatives at every cycle. The focus is not to solve feature issues, but to better the entirety of the product by looking at system as a whole. To do so, multiple axioms are needed:

Each subsequent axiom will not only test the features through iteration but it will question the previous innovation too, the original axiom. In other words, the new approach will question both the how’s and why’s.

Mind the Collective!

The second risk Lean production need to be aware of is the collective health of the team. It is true that failure brings the opportunity to learn and evolve the product. But once one feature fails, PMs usually miss the damage done on the system as a whole. Namely, it is easy to be blind to all the externalities that play out once a feature fails. PMs need to be on a constant surveillance of at least 4 other cycles: Marketing, Software Dev, UX, and Business team and how each of them are absorbing externalities from the others. The same tunnel vision around one axiom that is ambivalent to alternatives, causes the mismanagement of the entire system as a whole.

Back to the Amazon example: There were many engineers who simply did not share Fire’s vision after only few months of involvement. Nevertheless, they worked on the subsequent iteration but eventually exhausted the system and dragged the team downwards in the last 6 months of the project. Persistence on re-iteration can be deadly. It will ignore the collective system through blindingly insisting (yet being stuck) on the iteration circle!

Product cycle can incorporate a holistic step after each axiom is tried. This step could radar any externalities in the other 4 cycles and take into account systematical gains/pains before moving on the subsequent axiom tests:

Such approach, will ensure operational efficiencies equipped. It also enables PMs to be holistic guiders. They will be able to utilize their overlaps with all teams and align resources in a more transparent ways. This will contribute heavily to the collective health!

Whether Lean can fundamentally be a fertilizing ground for a holistic approach or not is a subject of debate. But for an interdisciplinary resource such as a product manager, incorporating a big picture view and systematically assessing risk in a product cycle undoubtedly is a definite must.