My Product Philosophy (aka The Way I Reason)

On the plausibility of Facebook vs. Vampires

Turn up the bass, check out my melody, hand out a cigar
 I’m lettin knowledge be born and my name’s the R — A-K-I-M 
 Not like the rest of them, I’m not on a list 
 That’s what I’m sayin, I drop science like a scientist
- Rakim (Eric B. & Rakim), My Melody

This calendar year has been one of progress. In addition to launching Your Look at Nordstrom.com, I have experienced fun challenges from the front lines of retail disruption, leading a redesign of the Nordstrom Product Page across desktop, mobile web, and app.

The progress we’ve made has forced me to visit and visit again my personal product philosophy. I find it both nuanced and difficult to summarize. Correspondingly, I find that the same elements that make it apophatic are the same that help me find success. My product philosophy is divergent. That is, it intentionally diverges from the expected.

Growing up hip-hop

The smoothest bridge to my perspectives on product development strategies is hip-hop. As an up and coming emcee, I learned how to take something known, let’s say a record or an aphorism, and transform it into something fresh and different.

As an emcee, you need to both convey your message and cut through. Conveying your message requires cogent thought, cutting through requires the unexpected.

Lemonade was a popular drink, and it still is.
- Gang Starr (Guru), DWYCK

The most potent punchlines combine the familiar and twist it into something unexpected.

NWA brought a familiar funk-infused sound, coupled with an aggressive message and abrasive delivery. The Notorious B.I.G., with clever street ready lyricism coupled with R&B samples. Eminem a sharp staccato, alliteration and witty edge drawing inspiration from children’s songs and pop culture.

The Black Swans of hip-hop, succeed by doing something no one else is doing. Like Kendrick Lamar dropping a jazz album at the height of his popularity.

Or back to the product world, developing a phone at the height of the Mac’s market resurgence.

76ers

The looking glass for what’s become my product philosophy comes not from a success story, but a resignation letter.

In his 13-page treatise, Sam Hinkie (architect of a franchise rebuilding plan that brought years of hapless performance) outlines the metaphysics of product strategy.

Product performance is not measured by the ability to take advantage of trends or market conditions affecting the entire industry. It is measured by the ability to outperform the industry and your peers.

Business is a non-zero-sum game. However market performance is comparative. It is not enough to grow at 13% if the industry is growing at 13%. Your job is to outperform, zigging where others zag.

Take sailing as an example.

Sailboat racing offers the chance to observe an interesting reversal of a “follow the leader” strategy. The leading sailboat usually copies the strategy of the trailing boat. When the follower tacks, so does the leader. The leader imitates the follower even when the follower is clearly pursuing a poor strategy. Why? Because in sailboat racing (unlike ballroom dancing) close doesn’t count; only winning matters. If you have the lead, the surest way to stay ahead is to play monkey see, monkey do.*
Dixit, Avinash K.. The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life (p. 11). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

When you follow the consensus strategy, all things being equal the existing market positions remain. Moreover, you are in a safe position when you stick with consensus, providing a strange incentive for even leaders:

Stock-market analysts and economic forecasters are not immune to this copycat strategy. The leading forecasters have an incentive to follow the pack and produce predictions similar to everyone else’s. This way people are unlikely to change their perception of these forecasters’ abilities.
Dixit, Avinash K.. The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life (p. 11). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

However, as Sam Hinkie highlights “…a necessary condition of great performance: you have to be nonconsensus and right.”

Nonconsensus

The impetus behind this post draws from a New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz which asks, “Is Bigfoot Likelier than the Loch Ness Monster?

The article goes through the process of how humans deduce what is most likely out of two impossible creatures: angels or leprechauns.

I highly recommend the read. Schulz goes through the process of human deduction on how we’re able to rank the likelihood of two events or outcomes that are by definition equal in their likelihood, which is to say zero.

One of the highlights summarizes a study which asked participants to rank spells on degrees of difficulty:

Last year, Shtulman and Morgan gave people pairs of magic spells and asked them to determine which one in each pair was more difficult. In every pair, both spells violated the same fundamental principle of physics, biology, or psychology, but each varied in how much it violated a secondary one. For instance, physics dictates that you cannot walk through anything solid, no matter what it’s made of, but also that materials differ with respect to properties like density and hardness. So which seems more difficult: walking through a wall made of stone or a wall made of wood?
Overwhelmingly, the subjects chose stone. They also determined that it would be harder to levitate a bowling ball than a basketball, and harder to grow an eye than a toe. Since levitation is categorically impossible, it shouldn’t matter that heavier objects, like bowling balls and cows, are harder to lift.
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/is-bigfoot-likelier-than-the-loch-ness-monster

It turns out the ability to reason through the impossible is a uniquely human exercise. Take for example any work of fiction.

The likelihood that any of the characters actually say and react as described in the work is zero, the characters don’t exist!

But through human ingenuity, an author can build realistic worlds upon foundations of the impossible. This means that every work of fiction critiqued on the grounds of believability is really assessing the comparative plausibility of impossible things.

On Microbes and Vampires

Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives. As an Hungarian doctor, he was incensed that more women died giving birth in hospitals than giving birth in the street.

He found “the big difference between the doctors’ ward and the midwives’ ward is that the doctors were doing autopsies and the midwives weren’t”

The focus for our purposes are how he arrived at this finding.

He didn’t start with an insight about autopsies (or even germs). He began with an observation: people are dying.

Next, he reasoned through the plausibility of equally, at the time, impossible realities:

  • It’s because they are given birth on their back… test… nope that’s not it
  • It’s because the attendants are ringing a bell… test… nope that’s not it

Ultimately he arrived at another impossibility:

Hungarian-born doctor Ignaz Semmelweis, while working at a birth clinic in Vienna in 1860, suggested that there were tiny, invisible, microscopic things making people sick and that doctors should wash them off of their hands and instruments before treating patients.
At the time, he might as well have been blaming ghosts or evil spirits. He was laughed at, almost lost his license three times, and finally had to intentionally infect himself to make his point. Only after Dr. Semmelweis’ death was the germ theory of disease developed, and he is now recognized as a pioneer of antiseptic policy and the prevention of infection.
Emergent Design: The Evolutionary Nature of Professional Software Development By Scott Bain

At the time, Ignaz’ hypothesis was no more plausible than than vampires. Ultimately, Ignaz was nonconsensus and right.


Dr. Semmelweis utilized the scientific method to explore unexplained phenomena: people are dying during childbirth in the doctor’s ward at an alarming rate. Next, he developed a hypothesis.

And what is a hypothesis but a plausible impossibility?

Follow me on this. Most hypotheses fail.

This doesn’t require an abductive leap. For every truth, there are an infinite number of falsehoods. Even a proven hypothesis has a 5% likelihood of false positive. The experiment can be valid and the explanation can be invalid the unknown known. Finally, and perhaps most damning that accepted hypothesis often can’t be reproduced!

Hypothesis and the impossible Facebook

In short, hypotheses in aggregate are a collection of impossible ideas. The hypothesis that is right in predictive power, reproducibility, and description of events is no longer a hypothesis, it is law. A law that was impossible at the time of birth.

Hypotheses in aggregate are a collection of impossible ideas.

This is fundamentally how a product vision works:

  • Reason through a set of impossible outcomes
  • Define which outcomes are most plausible
  • Define which are nonconsensus enough to drive great performance.

Let’s take Facebook as an example.

The Facebook in Mark Zuckerberg’s head was and is impossible. There was no universe where Facebook turns out exactly as he imagined it at the time where he wrote the first lines of code. Ideas change as they move towards embodiment.

It was impossible that a social network would supplant MySpace, it was impossible that a social network would reach billions, it was impossible that Facebook would make the shift to mobile.

Each of these was impossible outcomes at the time the product team prioritized the initiatives that made them a reality.

Closing

Thanks for joining me on this journey. In these themes lies my product philosophy.

Product is envisioning the plausibility of the impossible. Product is testing the hypothesis to explore the plausibility of the impossible.

And great Product Management is recognizing that an impossible outcome such as Facebook, is still a more plausible impossibility than Vampires.


Notes: You need to be nonconsensus and right on the core product vision. It’s irrational to pursue nonconsensus strategies in areas that aren’t valued by your customers and where there is no “upside hypothesis”.

Mikal is a Product Management Leader and former Startup C.E.O. originally from Baltimore, MD. He currently calls Seattle, WA home.