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Note: This is my latest in a series of posts on innovation theory inspired by the philosophy of Levi Bryant.


Marshall McLuhan, with his famous quote, “the medium is the message,” makes the point that the content of a message is less significant than the medium used.

McLuhan’s principle has profound implications for how to run a company. But first, let’s delve into the concept at play.

To illustrate, consider two parallel societies. Both societies have the same laws. In one of the societies, the laws are only spoken by the leader and shared verbally from citizen to citizen. In the other society, the leader speaks the laws but they’re also inscribed on walls and on paper.

In both societies, the content of the laws are the same but the media Is different. One uses speech and the other uses writing.

The difference in media has a profound impact. Through his research into societies with spoken versus written laws, the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant concluded that the “[s]etting [laws] down [in writing] not only ensured their permanence and stability; it also removed them from the private authority of the [ruler], whose function was to ‘speak’ the law” (as quoted by Levi Bryant in Onto-Cartography).

The sound waves of speech can only travel so far. Its content transforms from one listener to the next and fades away in memory. Without inscription, a spoken law is a commandment that the leader can easily alter with minimal accountability. The leader issuing laws is the lone authority on what the law actually is.

When a law is written down, in contrast, it takes on an existence independent of the leader who uttered it. This leader can still change the law, but they must reconcile modifications with the law in its previous form. Bryant explains:

… insofar as the law has been inscribed or written down, it takes on an objective value that rescues it from the whim of the ruler. In being inscribed, the law becomes a thing or machine in its own right rather than a command of the ruler. To be sure, the law written down issued from the ruler, but in its inscription on parchment or the wall of a temple, it now takes on an alien existence, an independent existence, that the ruler himself must contend with. Today he might be inclined to enact a different law, but because his “speech” lingers in the form of the written document, the ruler now finds that he must mesh what he said last year with what he wishes to decree today. Indeed, not only must he contend with what he said last year, but he must also contend with what previous rulers inscribed.

Written laws can be copied and proliferated without changes to the content. While interpretations of the law differ for individuals, the words themselves aren’t subject to the game of telephone.

Consequently, societies with written laws can scale across larger geographical areas than societies with only spoken law. It is not the laws themselves that facilitate the scale but the medium in which the laws are communicated. This is what McLuhan means by “the medium is the message.”

You can apply McLuhan’s principle to corporate communication. While it’s tempting for leaders to focus foremost on creating the right strategy, the mediums they use to communicate strategy are more important than the strategies themselves.

Strategic direction must constantly shift with signal from the real world. A leader’s pivots risk losing the confidence of the team. By writing down and sharing the rationale behind a shift, a leader makes the new strategy easily transferable and projects sound reasoning throughout the company. When strategy changes are only discussed verbally, in contrast, the intent can be lost in translation leaving contributors feeling jerked around by the whims of management.

Just as lack of written law inhibits a society’s scale, lack of written strategy stifles startup growth.

More companies, on the growth path, are following Google and The Gates Foundation in using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). OKRs are a framework where teams and individuals define their goals and measurable criteria indicating progress. OKRs are captured in spreadsheets or tools to be shared openly with the company at large.

The rise of the OKR model demonstrates that more companies recognize that the medium is the message. Brilliant strategies raining down from the executive team are insufficient for success as teams scale. Instead, a culture of open, stable, and written strategy is required to navigate an evolving landscape.

My project, Double-Loop, is another application of McLuhan’s principle. Double-Loop creates the expectation that product developers explain the hypotheses of their launches and loop back to examine the results relative to the original goal. The result is a culture of scientific product development. Double-Loop reflects that the mediums you use to communicate your product ideas are more important than the ideas themselves.

Mediums, in McLuhan’s sense, go beyond what you might traditionally think of as a medium. Levi Bryant explains:

We can see just how broadly McLuhan expands the concept of media, giving it a much deeper ontological significance than it is often taken to have. Often when we think of media we immediately think of things such as newspapers, television, music, etc. While these are indeed examples of media, McLuhan expands the notion to include everything from forks to seeing eye dogs. McLuhan thus recovers the Latinate sense of media as medius, denoting “intermediary.” A medium is an intermediary that relates one thing to another. Thus, for McLuhan, a medium does not so much refer to a particular medium of communication such as speech, sign-language, radio, television, writing, or smoke-signals – though all of these things are included in his theory of media – but rather places emphasis on both the materiality of media and the specific nature of that materiality, as well as the manner in which these media extend and amplify our sense-organs.

Bryant goes even further than McLuhan in arguing that machines can be mediums for other non-humans machines. In this sense, for example, your analytics systems are mediums for your website.

McLuhan and Bryant’s broad understanding of media is a valuable lens for understanding how a company’s systems and tools profoundly impact long-term success. What your company is doing at one moment is less important than the mediums its selected to structure the behavior of multiple generations of employees.

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Note: This is my latest in a series of posts on innovation theory inspired by the philosophy of Levi Bryant.


For a few years now, I’ve been obsessed with critiquing the notion that the great creators bend reality to their will. Some think that Steve Jobs, ignoring naysayers and customer feedback, changed the world to fit his vision. But in actuality, no leader is powerful enough to manipulate materials and people as they want. It’s always a negotiation. And to take things a step further, our creations design us as we design them.

The idea that designers can frictionlessly bend materials to their whims connects with the ancient philosophical tradition of hylomorphism. Rooted in the thinking of Aristotle, many Western philosophers describe matter as existing independent of form. In this model, it requires a “designer,” god or human, to add a meaningful structure. Levi Bryant explains:

The term “hylomorphism” comes from the Greek hyle signifying “matter” and morphe denoting “form.” Under this model of fabrication, the artisan first has a sort of blueprint of what he wants to produce in his mind (the form), and then imposes that model on matter giving it form. I first have a mental model of the knife I wish to produce in my mind and then set about fashioning the materials of the world about me into that form.

Bryant continues:

Yet when we look more closely at the actual activity of fabricating a work of art, tool, or technology, we see that something very different takes place. To be sure, the artist has some sort of intention to produce something like shelter from the elements, and this intention can involve a more or less elaborated model as in the case of an architect’s blueprint, but this is where the similarities to the hylomorphic model end. The problem with hylomorphic models of how artifacts are produced is that they forget both the time of production and engagement with the materials of the world. What attentiveness to the time of production and engagement with matter reveals is that the production of any artifact is much closer to a negotiation than the simple imposition of a form upon a passive matter. And as is the case with all negotiations, the final outcome or product of the negotiation cannot be said to be the result of a pre-existent and well-defined plan.

Bryant contends that all things, ranging from computers to mud, have their own structure that we must contend with. It’s easy to concede the unpredictability of inserting a new invention or product into complex social systems. But it’s tempting to think that, in confined domains, artists can have their way with the materials in front of them. However, Bryant argues that all materials have their own structure that they impose on us. He writes:

Take the sculptor working with marble. They might begin with a vague idea of what they want the marble to become and even select specific pieces of marble to execute this local manifestation, yet as they begin to work the marble, encountering its grain and veins, they’ll talk about how the marble “wants” to become something else.

Movements in software development such as agile and lean startup reflect our society’s letting go of hylomorphic design thinking. These methodologies involve incrementally poking the world to see what happens, before getting too far ahead of ourselves.

But we still have a long way to go towards appreciating the hidden powers of our own creations, and the implications are severe.

Take the invention of a clock. Did the creators of the first clocks intend to create a world where functioning socially and economically demands synchronizing with others according to a fixed absolute schedule?

The creators of internet-driven social networks like Twitter and Facebook had idealistic visions of democratizing information and “making the world more connected.” They did not know that their invention was going to, in turn, create Trump and tribalism.

The first car manufacturers did not know that they were creating a culture where humans, even with knowledge of climate change, would be so dependent on cars that they can’t stop polluting.

In web development, when we’re unsure of how the world will respond to a design change, we can A/B test it and then remove the change based on the measured effect. But with other design “innovations,” it’s not so easy to put the genie back in the bottle. The largest human creative endeavors are like going to war in Iraq with no exit strategy.

We need new frameworks to anticipate the second-, third-, and fourth-order impacts of the things we create.


Want to get better at anticipating the impact of your creations? Try Double-Loop. It’s not going to prevent climate change, but it’s a start.

Your team’s Slack account has many of the same psychic qualities as a physical office. Some conversations take place “out the open,” in public channels. Others happen “behind closed doors,” in private channels or DMs.

In an office, rampant closed-door sessions, filled with complaints about folks not in the room, breed a culture of distrust and alienation. The same toxic cycle plays out in Slack when grievances are aired privately, out of view from the implicated party.

When closed-door Slack sessions get negative, the impact is more insidious than in an office. In real life, if two people walk into a room and close the door, you know that it’s happening. In Slack, you don’t know about private conversations when you’re not included. Consequently, a suspicion that people are talking behind your back can escalate into paranoia.

As a manager, I love to use Slack to talk to my team. It is especially handy for remote teams and open layout office spaces where private conversations are harder to come by. One-on-one interactions are critical for building deeper connections with coworkers, and Slack facilitates this.

Sometimes one member of my remote team complains to me about another member via Slack DM. And that’s expected and ok. It helps to talk through problems before going directly to the person involved.

But I’ve realized that conversations like this should be rerouted as quickly as possible to a Slack conversation that includes all the people involved. It’s better to talk through the dispute together, without me as a proxy. Sometimes I include another team member in the multi-person DM to serve as a buffer. This makes the interaction feel less like a confrontation. I’ve found this to be an efficient way to get to solutions while keeping the trust level high.

It’s usually best for hard conversations to take place in person. But when this isn’t possible, the same principle applies to Slack.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Analytics tools are limited by the fact that they don’t include (1) a visual history of the apps we’re developing and (2) a record of the team intentions behind launches.

Analytics tools are useful for understanding how the live version of an app is performing. If you wonder how many people are clicking a button, you can see the number of clicks and easily interpret the results.

But analytics tools are not good at painting a detailed picture of how previous versions of the app performed. If you look back at the behavior of your users a year ago according to your analytics, it can be difficult to interpret the recorded actions that are no longer possible in the app. A year ago, clicks on “right nav menu” may have been a common action. This doesn’t carry much meaning if your site hasn’t had a right nav during your tenure at the company.

The inability to visualize previous versions of your app limits the value of old usage data, and this is a missed opportunity.

Let’s say your company sets a goal to increase video streams per user. Your website has had videos for a couple years, but the company has never intentionally tried to increase streams.  In your analytics, you see that the number of video streams elevated on your homepage 14 months ago and then dropped down two months later, before you joined. The company has redesigned the homepage twice since then. The previous product manager added some annotations about the redesigns, but you can’t see what changed or why.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could see, directly in your analytics tool, the version of the site that existed when the video streams spiked? You could incorporate aspects of the old design into your new design for testing. Because you can’t see it, it could take several iterations to discover a version as successful as the previous one, if you ever find it.

Analytics tools also do little to prevent you from retrying failed ideas from the past.

Let’s say you’re trying to increase the conversion rate on your checkout page. Working for a company that’s been around for a while, you’re clearly not the first person with this goal. Wouldn’t it be great if you could browse all the previous attempts to see what was tried and why? A tool like Optimizely would provide some history of experiments, but it’s not designed to expose learning in a form that can be plumbed for future inspiration.

I’m writing this post to convey a future iteration of my project, Double-Loop. The current version of Double-Loop provides part of the puzzle: it enables teams to efficiently record their history of launches and learning. Combining analytics with Double-Loop will open new possibilities of mining value from past analytics.

Here’s an early mockup, developed with my designer friend Dennis Crothers, of how this might look:

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While analytics integration isn’t live yet, get a head start building your Double-Loop launch timeline! I believe you’ll find value in co-authoring your company history with teammates. Future team members will love you for it.

My side project, Double-Loop, is an app and Slack bot for recording and sharing the story of your build-measure learn loops.

While anyone can try it (click the above link), I’m looking specifically to test and craft Double-Loop with a small number of post product-market fit companies. If you’re interested, fill out the below form. Selected participants will play a key role shaping the future functionality of Double-Loop.

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.