The Varieties of Product Management Tension

impossiblecubeStarting with The Product Management Triangle, I’ve argued that a chief responsibility of product managers is to release the tension surrounding a product. In the PM triangle article, I focused on business model tensions and tensions between teams. But since then, I’ve explored an additional four types of product tension.  This post takes a zoomed out view which also serves as a guide to much of my writing over the last three years.

1. Tensions inherent in the business model

Every product has some degree of tension arising from its business model. Since people would rather not pay for things, UX and monetization are fundamentally at odds. The tension is most inflamed in advertising-based business models where the company makes money by making the user experience worse in adding more ads to the page.

PMs live at the conflict line between UX and monetization and must find ways to manage the tension. For example, native ads mitigate biz model tension by meeting monetization goals while minimizing UX damage. An increasing number of SaaS enterprise companies, like Slack, are charging on a per active user basis. While customers would prefer “free,” this minimizes the tension by ensuring that customers only pay in proportion to the value they receive.

For more, see The Product Management Triangle.

2. Tensions between a product and its environment

Launching a new product is like injecting a foreign object into a stable environment. Sometimes the intrusion is embraced while other times its rejected.

PMs must balance two ways of thinking. On the one hand, companies aspire to “change the world” or “dent the universe” with their product. On the other hand, they must adapt their product according to customer feedback and market signal.

The tension between bending the world versus bending to the world is one of my favorite product management dilemmas.

For more, see The Fundamental Tension in Product.

3. Tensions between predictable and unpredictable game plans

Building a product requires navigating an unpredictable future. Yet the people who fund and resource products often want to see clearly defined development roadmaps and predictable budgets.

We’ve seen the software development world drift from waterfall to agile ways of operating. Waterfall methodology puts up a false facade of certainty regarding the path forward. Agile allows teams to iteratively adapt a product based on incremental learning and external response, but legibility is sacrificed. Stakeholders have trouble planning around a product with an unclear future shape and cost structure.

To manage this tension, PMs must give products the breathing room to evolve organically while providing stakeholders and clients sufficient stability in the future plan.

For more, see Let’s Rethink Product Roadmaps.

4. Tensions between short-term and long-term goals

There are two popular edicts that are actually at odds with each other. On the one hand, startups are told to build MVPs that test core product assumptions as early as possible. On the other hand, startups are advised to build platforms that take on a life beyond any single application.

PMs must navigate when to ship a lightweight MVP app and when to invest in a platform. Either approach can go wrong. A failed MVP could discourage a team from following a lucrative direction. A platform can be expensively built to never find its killer app.

For more, see Lean & Fat Product Thinking.

5. Tensions between religious and scientific mentalities

Inherent in many of the above tensions is a conflict from two ways of thinking about products. Lean startup methodology rides a wave of scientific product thinking focused on falsifying hypotheses and split testing. Yet, prominent product visionaries like Steve Jobs operate more like religious leaders who stay true to a mission regardless of what the world throws at them.

Product managers strive to articulate a “north star” that inspires an almost religious following. But to reach that north star, they must cultivate a scientific mindset where beliefs are discarded when disproven.

For more, see The Risk of Scientific Creative Process.

6. Tensions between employees

All of the above tensions can lead to clashes between team members. The sales team clashes with designers when both parties have different incentives under the business model. Or one team can be frustrated with another team who isn’t, in their eyes, sufficiently scientific in their approach. To manage these types of tensions, the PM must clearly articulate how the company is approaching all the above tension. This provides the rationale for how conflicts between team members should be handled.

However, the worse types of tension I’ve seen is between the identities of team members; when two people have different intuitions for how to solve a single problem. I’ve found that for teams to thrive, everyone needs their own swim lane so they aren’t competing with others over sacred turf. Yet swim lane differentiation can’t come at the price of collaboration. You need people from different swimlanes working together to accomplish singular objectives.

For more, see The Product Management Triangle.

Thanks for reading this post! Check out my project, Double-Loop, that strives to improve the product development process by recording the story of your build-measure-learn loops.





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