Product Fables: Meta 4 Change

Aoyb ir alts darfn a helping hant ir vet gefinen eyner in di suf fun deyn orem.

(If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.)

— Yiddish proverb

Fable 1: An Exchange on the Road

A woman was driving and slowed to a stop for a left turn. Just then another car zipped around the corner and almost clipped her. The other driver skidded to a stop, the cars now right next to each other. Looking flustered, he shouted “Cow!” at the woman before speeding off. The woman stared in shock, and rage. She flipped the other driver off in her rearview mirror, stomped on the accelerator, and swerved around the corner. And sometimes our interpretations are wrong, and she plowed directly into the cow that was standing in the middle of the road.

Fable 2: The Son of the Pizza King

Sally and Sam wanted to go into business for themselves. They wanted to learn how to make bets to generate value. They withdrew Sam’s savings and traveled to Vegas. The casino they entered was large and lavish. An enclosed world, big and disorienting. There were no clocks. There were no windows. You couldn’t see the outside world. They walked past rows of blinking slot machines, past roulette wheels, to the poker tables. There was a small crowd gathered round a single player. A large man, finely dressed, wearing rings with large stones in them. He had a massive pile of poker chips in front of him. Sam and Sally nodded at each other, and smiled. They wanted to learn from the best, and this man looked to be exactly that.

He placed bet after bet, never breaking a sweat, despite betting such high-dollar chips. Sally and Sam watched and learned. Sam took extensive notes. They studied how he played, when he’d fold, how often he bluffed. They took note of his demeanor, how he exuded confidence, know-how, and success. It was contagious, like the flu. Equally confident, Sally and Sam took all they’d learned to another table, and quickly lost all of Sam’s savings. Sally and Sam had assumed the man was an expert at gambling, when really he was the son of the “Pizza King” of Chicago. His father gave him money to go to the casino, and the man would go play poker, his favorite game, never really worrying about the outcome.

Fable 3: The Chicago-Style Pizza Detective Agency

Modern English has lost the singular-plural distinction for the word “you,” hence the many regional workarounds, such as “ya’ll,” “you guys,” “you mob,” “yee,” and the Chicagoan “yous,” which Sally and Sam had noticed the man saying.

The man’s name was Al. Al’s father was Sal. Sal owned nine Chicago-style pizza joints. They were very successful. The next morning, Sally and Sam spotted Al at the casino’s breakfast buffet. They struck up a conversation. Sally and Sam told Al what had happened, which Al found especially hilarious. Not having learned their lesson, Sally and Sam wanted to know all about how Al’s father Sal ran so many pizza joints. He was, after all, the Pizza King of Chicago, famous all over…Chicago.

Al laughed again, ate waffles, and gladly gave them the rundown. He told them all about how customers placed orders and paid for them to be filled by lines of scaled workers across locations, how the orders generated tickets sequenced in store backlogs, how the pizza dev teams looked at what toppings the customers requested, tossing the dough, adding the toppings, popping the bubbles in the oven, boxing the pies, speeding around town and delivering pizzas to fill orders. It was fascinating, and captivating, and Sally and Sam took extensive notes.

What a good system, they thought, for making bets to create value, innovating, pursuing opportunities, solving underlying issues…and mysteries. They took out Sally’s savings and started a detective agency in the south side of Chicago. People came to them, described what they wanted the agency to find, and the agency developed and delivered the evidence, filling the customers’ orders. They were far from Vegas, which was good, because they never really learned anything about betting, or about detective work for that matter. But that was fine, because the Murgatroyd Detective Agency was a pizza joint.

Fable 4: The Foolish Wizard Uncasts a Spell

Richard Carlson was a dissatisfied employee at the Murgatroyd Agency. He wanted to be a real detective and didn’t see what filling orders had to do with solving mysteries. He was confused, and unhappy, and grew to hate the taste of Chicago-style pizza. One day he was at a coffee joint, and saw a little old man transform into a wizard before his eyes. Mystified, he asked if he could join him. “Can you?” asked the little man. Richard joined him, and poured his heart out, and began to learn about transformation, and began to learn about spells, and the power of stories.

“So…what’s a wizard do?” Richard asked.

“What do you think?” asked the little man back.

“They cast spells,” Richard said.

The old man grinned. “Then you’re a wizard,” he said, “for we all cast spells. On ourselves. We walk around under them — can’t get through a day without them. But a great wizard breaks spells. Forget magic wands, which keep you stuck wishing. Stories get things done.”

“That sounds kind of foolish,” said Richard.

“Good!” the little man said, smiling. “Tell me, why did kings have court fools?”

Richard thought a moment. “For…entertainment,” he said.

“Wrong! It was because fools understood framing, and stories, and could tell leadership things no one else could get away with. Look at that wall.” Richard looked. There was a frame. Inside it was a picture of a turkey eating feed. Outside it was a farmer with an axe, walking toward the pen. Richard nodded. “Your frame is a spell,” the old man said, “your map is not the territory, and all learning is hypnosis. And what does the Murgatroyd Agency really do?”

“We fill orders,” said Richard.

The wizard smiled. “Yes, and you add complexity to the system without checking whether the outcomes were worth it. Because an order was made to be filled. And outcomes seem like magic, like something that doesn’t exist — so long as no one’s looking. Just because someone’s asking for something is not a good reason to do it.”

Richard nodded. “Then I want to solve problems,” he added.

“Then call yourself something else,” the wizard replied, “because teams of developers build houses, and delivery teams deliver pizza. Go meta. For. Change. Better than that — metafive and even eight. The pizza. But not anymore. I’m not going to tell you how easy it is to, make these changes. You want to change your environment? Change your behavior. You want to change your behavior? Change your abilities. You want to change your abilities? Change your beliefs. You want to change it all in one fell swoop? Then change your identity. Call yourself something else.

“What do you see yourself as doing professionally? And that is an example of what? Chunk up. You are not doing development and delivery. That frames your work in suboptimal ways. Agile feeds the wrong frame. Product work isn’t about production, at all, it’s about decisions made.

Richard drank his coffee. He was confused, and that was good, and the little old man leaned in close, continuing in softer tones: “You’re in a casino, making bets about the outside, and the casino has no windows. It has no clocks. You really think people talking in a meeting is a viable approach to planning? Stop scaling for digging holes, and focus on your metal detector.

“It’s not about delivering twice the pizzas in half the time. It’s about doing half as much ‘work’…while achieving twice the outcomes. It’s about making bets against complexity, pursuing opportunities, and recognizing…this isn’t the same thing as running a factory, or a pizza joint. This is product work, where the heavy lifting is design, and design works with decisions, not artifacts. Those trying to convince you otherwise steal your power to create value.”

Richard was beginning to see. Words have consequences, and descriptions trap us. Our belief sets are largely metaphorical, and they hypnotize us, and it is like a spell. And he was already not the same person he was before he read this, sitting at his desk, and even if he didn’t think so, even if he didn’t consciously…and the old man went on:

“And do you tell yourself you’re solving problems when you’re really just filling orders? That’s a spell! Do you pretend you’re innovating when you’re asking people what toppings they want? A spell! Do you pretend you’re placing bets when you’re running a delivery service? Another spell! Are you confusing gamblers with Pizza Kings? And spells are all around you, and only a wizard or a witch or a fool can break them, someone capable of great magic. And you’ll be surprised when you wake up and realize, you are capable of great magic. Or maybe I’m wrong, and you won’t be surprised at all. Wide awake now.”

Richard looked up from his coffee he was sipping, at his table, by himself, and saw himself in the mirror, and he looked refreshed, not at all like a little old man. And he stepped out of his cubicle, at work, and felt refreshed. In his next meeting he reframed the prevailing narrative, reached agreement on a crisp outcome, and told a new story, and the group realized they didn’t need to build anything to achieve this outcome, and that “build” probably wasn’t a useful word anyway. And the org saved a million dollars and never even realized it, because it still liked fables about iron triangles, which are fine…if you’re making pizza.

And Richard got really good at breaking spells.