The Healthy Tension Trap

Seriously! We’re all Product Developers!

I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before…

A good designer wants an elegant, polished solution. A good PM wants to solve the right problem and optimise for speed. A good engineer wants an implementation that’s maintainable and efficient. (source)

And then you’ll hear about healthy tension. The idea is that everyone will “advocate” for their respective interests, and out will pop an awesome product. The thinking is that without the keen eye of UX, the interface will end up looking like a command prompt. Or that without Product cracking the whip, Engineering will re-factor their code a dozen times, and UX will polish every pixel (repeatedly, those wacky designers).

Do you know what happens instead (in many cases)? Mediocrity and complacency. Green + Red != Christmas. No…. Green + Red = Brown (an “icky mix that doesn’t bode well for your pigment/paint”).

Instead of advocating (and healthfully debating) for the best idea, or the right way to deliver value to customers, you end up with bunch of people playing into various stereotypes, or worse yet chasing the incentives / rewards of their functional group over a focus on customer needs.

A healthy team will debate, argue, test, and tweak. It’ll get downright heated sometimes. Healthy tension assumes no one can think beyond their functional silo, look at the data, or leverage the respective backgrounds and skills of their teammates in a productive, non-tense way. Someone wins, and someone loses.

Quotes like this drive me crazy:

“There’s some healthy tension there,” McCoy remarked. “At the end of the day, the product manager has a primary responsibility to the business. The designer has a primary responsibility to the user.”

The dreaded Business raises its ugly head again (as if there is this clean line between the engineering org — the factory — and the business/product folks who know what to build). Designers! Have you been in this position and rocked that healthy tension? Was it fun representing that user? Did you “win” ?

We are all product developers! We make stuff people use. We wear a ton of hats. We care! I’m not saying you don’t have a speciality, and a community of practitioners to learn from, but that is different from carving up your product development organization.

No one has ever given me a persuasive reason why you can’t just bag the three functional groups and have a single product development team.

But, but, but …. the CTO doesn’t care about UX! Bad reason. But, but, but … we need a Product org to hold the Engineering org accountable. Bad reason. Most of the reasons have to do with internal personalities, trust, chains of command, and outdated ideas about how healthy tension can benefit the product development process. They’re rooted in the idea that you need this layer (product management) to sit between the business and the engineering factory, and that UX will sort of float there advocating for good design when no one will listen. And that we’re all myopically selfish.

Replace tension with trust and diversity. It achieves the same outcome without the death-by-matrix baggage.

As mentioned in previous posts, the customer doesn’t care one bit how you structure your org. But if they witnessed the typical positioning, politicking, and “advocating” that happens in most organizations, they’d probably laugh. Solve my problem, so I can give you money! And leverage everyone’s skills to make that happen, regardless of context, functional group, or agenda.