Lean & Fat Product Thinking

In 2005, I took on my first product management job, developing data management tools for  CNET. Wisely, the company put me through agile training. While the agile philosophy resonated with me, I quickly fell into a waterfall trap in my first large project. The objective was to create a tool that would streamline the workflow between the editorial and data teams. Given complexities in how the two teams needed to work together, we designed an elaborate user interface to handle every last corner case. Stakeholders were happy with the design, so the developers started building it. Even though we worked in two-week sprints, the engineering effort spiraled out of control. Will to invest in the project dried up before we were finished implementing the planned design. We ultimately shipped a tool that cosmetically looked like our original design, but only portions of the user interface were functional.

While the tool was an embarrassment on many levels, it was not a complete failure. A feature that we built in the very beginning — the ability for the editorial team to publish a product review before a catalog record was processed by the data team — was a big efficiency gain over the previous state. If we had just shipped that one feature first and iterated on the design from there, we would have saved the company tons of money and delivered better results. Some of the corner cases we prepared for, in practice, never happened. The interface we handed over to the engineering team was insanely over-designed.

Fortunately, I only made that particular mistake once in my career. I started looking at all design assumptions with suspicion. After reading The Lean Startup, my conversion to skeptical product development was complete. I felt that every strategy needed to be rigorously tested and validated with users from the outset. Any small investment in an invalidated direction, in my mind, was fat that should be cut out of our operation. Lean was my religion.

When Steve Jobs died in 2011, I read Walter Isaacson’s biography. Jobs’ aggressive pushing of vision, against resistance from co-workers and the marketplace, seemed key to Apple’s unprecedented impact. To a lean extremist, the Steve Jobs phenomenon is pretty confusing. My bias was to be adaptive to marketplace signal, not to ignore it. As someone with my own dreams of changing the world, I admired Steve Jobs. Yet, I espoused a doctrine that made his success unintelligible. In retrospect, I’m amazed by how long I lived with this contradiction.

The first time I became consciously aware that lean product thinking had limits was from reading Product-Driven versus Customer-Driven by Venkatesh Rao in 2014. Rao pointed out that, with lean startup methodology, attempts to iterate at minimal cost towards market validation can take you away from your original vision, leading to what he describes as “visioning-process debt.” Rao writes: “While there is a vast repository of programmer knowledge about refactoring techniques, there is no comparable metis around pivoting and paying off visioning-process debt.”

Rao’s words about the limitations of lean startup felt profound to me, but I didn’t know what was tangibly on the other side. If lean startup wasn’t an optimal way to think about product, what was the optimal way?

Additionally, Rao convincingly claimed that “there’s an indispensable asshole at the top for product-driven” companies. Since iterating based on customer feedback is insufficient to achieve large impact, an asshole is necessary to get a whole company to go along with a vision that cannot be market tested along the way. Being a visionary product thinker is insufficient — you need to intimidate a group into following you, or so the argument goes.

This was troubling to me since, with a high autonomic response rate, I’m biologically wired to not be an asshole. Was I was facing a non-asshole ceiling in my ambitions as a product leader?

Time will tell whether I’m facing a non-asshole ceiling, but I’ve at least made progress grasping what’s on the other side of lean thinking. Rao’s recent piece offers a nice way of framing it: “fat thinking.” Of course! It’s only natural that fat thinking would follow lean thinking, similar to how philosophical movements zig zag between opposites, like structuralism leading to deconstruction.

Fat thinking, however, does not replace lean thinking. The optimal product crafting process must balance both modes, recognizing the correct context for each one.

Here’s how Rao characterizes fat thinking:

When you get away from lean regimes, you’re running fat: you’ve deployed more capital than is necessary for what you’re doing, and you’re deriving a return from it at a lower rate than the maximum possible.

So why would you ever deploy more capital than is necessary? Consider the decision to build a platform. A lean extremist would say that you shouldn’t build a platform until you’re scaling an app with proven demand. Otherwise, you risk creating a platform that no one will use. Why not first find out if people give a shit before doing the heavy lifting?

The fat thinker’s answer is that building a platform can enhance your ability to discover a killer app. If you start by only making a platformless prototype app, if it fails user validation, only minor iterations come easy. There’s no way to quickly manifest the essence of the original vision in widely varying forms.

Platform fat can make you leaner in attacking specific opportunities. I saw this at my previous company. We had a platform for rating the sustainability of products. While we started with a consumer focus, we later discovered demand for an enterprise app. The platform made validating this direction cheap. If the original consumer app was only a prototype, we would have had to almost start from scratch testing the enterprise app. Instead, it only required bolting on a new UI. As it turned out, we ultimately had to rebuild the platform, but we did so with a paying partner.

Building a platform before you’ve validated a killer app requires faith in a vision. In his 1896 paper The Will to Believe, philosopher William James explains why this type of untested belief is not in conflict with a scientific sensibility. James argues that there are cases, like religion, where you need to believe a hypothesis to find out if it’s true. Building a platform-first startup is such a case. You’re not going to build an unvalidated platform if you’re skeptical of its value.

This gets us to another difference between lean and fat thinking. In lean startup methodology, we’re predominantly skeptical of all hypotheses. A direction must be proven before it’s adopted. In fat thinking, we cannot be skeptical. We must believe that we are on the right course. Skepticism will cause failure. (My last post explains this point in more detail.)

In one sense, the distinction between lean and fat thinking maps to Karl Popper’s separation of science and pseudoscience. While it’s been debated by others, Popper argues that the defining characteristic of science is that its hypotheses must be falsifiable. Falsifiable hypotheses are key to lean startup methodology. If an experiment cannot result in a failure, what can you learn from running it? A pseudoscience, in contrast, is based on confirmation. Astrology has traction because so many happenings can be interpreted to confirm its claims. The visions that motivate fat thinking share pseudoscience’s potential for wide interpretation, but towards positive ends. A powerful product vision attracts believers. Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information” or Facebook’s mission “to make the world more open and connected” bring people under the tent in an astrology-like manner.

However, the believers attracted by companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google must also be scientists. Lean and fat thinking must be combined under the same roof. Elon Musk’s master plan for Tesla is a perfect illustration. Musk believes that his company can help prevent the collapse of civilization by driving sustainable changes through the economy (requires fat thinking). Doing so requires using limited resources to win in specific markets that exist now, starting in the high-end car market  (lean thinking).

Here’s my summary heuristic for how to combine lean and fat thinking:

  1. Use lean thinking to adapt your creations to the world as it is now.
  2. Use fat thinking to conceptualize how you will change the world or anticipate how the world will change.

Lean thinking is how you win markets, tap into behavioral patterns, adapt to the economy, and create a killer app with graphs that go up and to the right. Fat thinking is how you create markets, change human behavior, transform the economy, and build a platform that births a multitude of killer apps.

While much systematic thought has been published on lean manufacturing and thinking, there’s less out there on fat thinking. Today, fat thinking is primarily visible from (A) charismatic “assholes” who easily attract followers to their vision or (B) creationist-style thinkers who don’t believe that science has a role in product design.

To make fat thinking a fruitful enterprise for scientifically-minded non-assholes, we need to create new systems. Rao’s “leak before failure” notion is the beginning of one such system. Warldley value chain maps are another example. Both ideas provide justifications for adding fat to your creations in anticipation of world change.

To conclude, I’ve reposted the diagram from my post, The Fundamental Tension in Product.  The inner loops describe how to stay oriented in your current environment. The goal here is to stay lean. Quick cycles translate to market advantage. Your fat should come from the outer loops, your vision for how the world should or will be.



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