I just finished reading Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. This is a must-read book for all leaders, product managers, and entrepreneurs out there. Greg’s basic premise is that you should live life as an essentialist — take a disciplined approach to focusing on the very few things that really matter. In doing so, you will be able to concentrate your energy and resources in those vital few areas and make rapid progress towards your goal.
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
In this post, I want to extend Greg’s philosophy of essentialism to product managers in particular. Why is it important for PMs to think like essentialists?
- Limited time and resources
- Simplify the user experience
- Preserve our ability to innovate and change
Limited time and resources
The PM’s decisions determine the success of the product and of the team. With limited time and engineering / design resources, it is critical that we deploy those resources against the most valuable products and features immediately.
What happens if we don’t think like an essentialist? We fall victim to the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” More products in our portfolio, more features in our products. We over-build, we miss deadlines due to feature bloat. Over time, we build a sprawling mess of mediocre products. And our products become unwieldy and confusing due to having too many useless features.
With an essentialist approach, we “make the wisest possible investment of your time and energy… by doing only what is essential.” In other words, our engineering and design teams don’t churn over unnecessary products or features. We get our products to market quickly with only the most important features that solve our customer’s problem.
Simplify the user experience
We want our products to be both valuable and usable for our customers. In order to make them usable, we need to bridge the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation, as Don Norman wrote about in The Design of Everyday Things.
When anyone uses a new product, they face two gulfs:
- Gulf of Execution: figuring out how the product operates
- Gulf of Evaluation: figuring out what happened
The role of a product designer is to help bridge these gulfs. If we’re successful with bridging the Gulf of Execution, customers can pick up our product and it’s obvious what they need to do to operate it. If we’re successful with bridging the Gulf of Evaluation, customers know how to interpret our products and we meet their expectations.
We can bridge both gulfs by using constraints to simplify the user experience. When a customer picks up our product, we don’t want them to be confused by a myriad of choices for what to do first. We want a simple, clean user interface that automatically guides them to bridge the Gulf of Execution. By imposing constraints, we also set the customer’s expectations about what to expect and how to evaluate the product after they use it. Thus, we need to adopt the essentialist mentality — focusing only on what features are truly essential — to avoid cluttering our product and introducing unnecessary complexity.
Preserve our ability to innovate and change
Steve Jobs once said:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
What did he mean? Steve was making the excellent point that each additional thing we take on — each new product or feature — constrains our ability to innovate. It means that we take on the cost of designing, developing, and maintaining the additional feature. It also means that we diffuse our resources and end up spreading ourselves too thin, and therefore can’t make enough progress against the innovative features that really matter. Every thing we say “yes” to means that we are forced to say “no” to many other things.
Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, and his co-authors wrote about the importance of staying lean in their book Getting Real.
“The leaner you are, the easier it is to change.
“The more massive an object, the more energy is required to change its direction. It’s as true in the business world as it is in the physical world.
“When it comes to web technology, change must be easy and cheap. If you can’t change on the fly, you’ll lose ground to someone who can. That’s why you need to shoot for less mass.
“Mass is reduced by…
Less software, less code
“Less mass lets you change direction quickly. You can react and evolve. You can focus on the good ideas and drop the bad ones. You can listen and respond to your customers. You can integrate new technologies now instead of later. Instead of an aircraft carrier, you steer a cigarette boat.”
As PMs, if we adopt the essentialist mentality, we are able to preserve our ability to innovate and change. We can concentrate our resources on the most innovative features, rather than spreading ourselves too thin .And we can quickly change our product direction based on customer insights.
The Essentialist Mindset for PMs and Entrepreneurs
What is the essentialist mindset, and how can PMs and entrepreneurs leverage it?
The essentialist mindset starts with this important lesson:
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
For the product manager, this translates to:
“If you don’t prioritize your product features, someone else will.”
It could be your customers, your competitors, your sales team, your executives, your designers, your engineers, your marketing team, or your lawyers. Each of these stakeholders will exert pressure to incorporate product features. If you as the PM don’t prioritize your own product features, one (or multiple) of these stakeholders will.
According to Greg McKeown, the core mindset of an essentialist consists of the following three principles:
1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.
2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.
3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all.
In order to make essentialist decisions, we need to do the following:
- Explore: discern the vital few from the trivial many
- Eliminate: cut out the trivial many
- Execute: remove obstacles and make execution effortless
In this post, I’m only going to discuss the “Explore” and “Eliminate” concepts for product managers.
Essentialism in product management starts with the “Explore” step. As Greg wrote:
“One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Whereas Nonessentialists commit to everything or virtually everything without exploring, Essentialists systematically explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because they will commit and “go big” on one or two ideas or activities, they deliberately explore more options at first to ensure that they pick the right one later.”
Greg quotes the author Richard Koch:
“Most of what exists in the universe — our actions, and all other forces, resources and ideas — has little value and yields little result; on the other hand, a few things work fantastically well and have tremendous impact.”
Your goal in this stage is to discern the vital few (the “signal”) from the trivial many (the “noise”). The Essentialist view is that most product and feature ideas are noise, and only very few things are exceptionally valuable and have tremendous impact.
So rather than committing to building new features right away, start with “no” and continue to explore. As Jason Fried and his co-authors wrote in Getting Real:
“Each time you say yes to a feature, you’re adopting a child. You have to take your baby through a whole chain of events (e.g. design, implementation, testing, etc.). And once that feature’s out there, you’re stuck with it. Just try to take a released feature away from customers and see how pissed off they get.
“Make each feature work hard to be implemented. Make each feature prove itself and show that it’s a survivor. It’s like “Fight Club.” You should only consider features if they’re willing to stand on the porch for three days waiting to be let in. That’s why you start with no. Every new feature request that comes to us — or from us — meets a no. We listen but don’t act. The initial response is “not now.” If a request for a feature keeps coming back, that’s when we know it’s time to take a deeper look. Then, and only then, do we start considering the feature for real.”
How do you discern the vital few product features from the trivial many? One strategy, as Jason mentioned above, is to wait to see which features are repeatedly requested from customers. Another strategy is to use a human-centered design (HCD) to understand customers’ underlying needs, not just what they tell you that they want. As Don Norman writes in The Design of Everyday Things:
“Human-centered design is a design philosophy. It means starting with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet. This understanding comes about primarily through observation, for people themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering. Getting the specification of the [product]… is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the approach and the problem definition.”
You need to go out and spend time with your customers. Observe their behavior in their environment, and then identify problems, opportunities, and triggers for behavior. Once you have this deep understanding, you will be able to discern the vital few from the trivial many.
The final strategy here is to set a high bar for agreeing to new features — or as Greg McKeown says, “the power of extreme criteria.” One suggestion that Greg offers is the 90 Percent Rule:
“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. This way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s.”
You want to use selective and explicit criteria for deciding which features to include in your product. Don’t settle for mediocre or even “good enough” features. If you set a high bar, you will ensure that you are focusing only on the vital few product features that deliver exceptional value, rather than the trivial many that yield little result. By setting extreme criteria for taking on new features, we can then live by this motto:
“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”
The next key principle of essentialism in product management is “Eliminate.” Our goal here is to cut out the trivial many from the onslaught of feature requests we receive from our stakeholders. The “Eliminate” step almost always involves saying no.
The foundation for being able to say “no” to new feature requests is having a purpose for our product. Greg McKeown observes:
“Motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose… When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.”
To address the lack of clarity, Greg recommends developing an “essential intent.”
“An essential intent… is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.”
For product managers, an “essential intent” is the product’s purpose. As Jason Fried wrote in Getting Real, ask yourself “What’s the big idea?”
“Explicitly define the one-point vision for your app. What does your app stand for? What’s it really all about?
“Before you start designing or coding anything you need to know the purpose of your product — the vision. Think big. Why does it exist? What makes it different than other similar products?
“This vision will guide your decisions and keep you on a consistent path. Whenever there’s a sticking point, ask, ‘Are we staying true to the vision?’…
“Make the big decision about your vision upfront and all your future little decisions become much easier.”
Paul Buchheit, one of the creators of Gmail, once wrote a post “If your product is Great, it doesn’t need to be Good.” In that post, he wrote:
“Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else. Those three attributes define the fundamental essence and value of the product — the rest is noise… By focusing on only a few core features in the first version, you are forced to find the true essence and value of the product. If your product needs ‘everything’ in order to be good, then it’s probably not very innovative (though it might be a nice upgrade to an existing product). Put another way, if your product is great, it doesn’t need to be good.”
Both Jason and Paul were writing about the same concept — your product needs a purpose, an essential intent that captures the true value and differentiation of your product. Once you have this essential intent (or purpose) for your product, it becomes easier to cut out the trivial many and say “no.” Is this new feature idea true to our product’s purpose? Does it reinforce one of the three key attributes or features that we need to get very, very right? If not, then it’s part of the trivial many, and should be met with a quick no.
Even with a product purpose, though, sometimes it’s difficult for us to say no. Here are some tips from Greg McKeown for how to say no:
- Separate the decision from the relationship. Try to remember that “denying the request is not the same as denying the person.” If we separate the decision from the relationship, we can make the clear decision to say no, and then communicate our decision to the individual.
- Focus on the trade-off. When it’s awkward to explicitly say “no” (e.g. when a senior executive suggests a new feature), surface the trade-off to the individual. Say to them, “What should we deprioritize to take this on?” Do this when you know that taking on this new work will spread your team too thin, and jeopardize the team’s existing priorities. “Remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.”
- Make peace with the fact that you will make unpopular decisions. As Greg writes:
“When you say no, there is usually a short-term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and doesn’t get it, his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger. This downside is clear. The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable…
“Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Yes, saying no respectfully, reasonably, and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost. But part of living the way of the Essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run.”
For PMs, this means that we will be unpopular when we say no. We need to live with this fact. Rather than just respect, though, what we really gain is clarity and focus for our team. And with that clarity and focus, we also gain all of the benefits we discussed above — the wisest deployment of our limited time and resources; a superior and simpler user experience; and the ability to innovate and change.
Essentialism is an extremely valuable mindset for us to apply in our professional and personal lives. For product managers in particular, essentialism is critical in order for us to build successful products.
The core philosophy of essentialism is that we should make the wisest possible investment of our time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.
It is important for PMs and entrepreneurs to adopt the essentialist mentality for the following reasons:
- Limited time and resources
- Simplify the user experience
- Preserve our ability to innovate and change
In order to pursue the essentialist mindset, product managers should do the following:
- Explore: discern the vital few from the trivial many. When you hear a new feature request, start with “no” and continue to explore. Wait until you repeatedly hear the same request over and over again. Use human-centered design (HCD) to deeply understand your customer, discover underlying needs, and identify the vital few. Use the power of extreme criteria (like the 90 percent rule) to set a high bar, and focus on only those vital few that will deliver exceptional value.
- Eliminate: cut out the trivial many. Develop your product’s essential intent, or purpose. Use this one decision up front to settle one thousand future decisions. If a new feature request isn’t true to your product’s purpose, it becomes one of the trivial many. Develop the courage to say no, by using techniques like focusing on the trade-off. Know that you will trade your own popularity for clarity and focus for your team.
One simple thing you can do as a product manager is to ask yourself:
What is most important right now?
That is your product’s essential intent. That is the signal, everything else is noise.
I now much better understand the power of essentialism for product management. I plan to use these principles and develop the essentialist mindset for all of my future product endeavors. I highly encourage you to do the same.