PRODUCTHEAD: Do the hard work to make it simple

PRODUCTHEAD: Do the hard work to make it simple

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

i am a product child #


Focus helps to reduce cognitive load without losing sight of the underlying complexity — it is different to simplifying

The challenge of simplifying a complex legal process was to find simpler language that didn’t sacrifice essential points of law

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every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


Today’s PRODUCTHEAD tackles one of the deeper and trickier topics in product management: premature or over-simplification of product strategy.

Keep it simple, stupid #

If you’ve encountered variations of the single ‘pillars of strategy’ slide, or had a boss who wants you to summarise your strategy in three simple bullet points — or worse, a tweet — you may understand the pressure on product managers to simplify. In his recent talk, John Cutler instead urges us to focus first then simplify.

Focus is painful #

Choosing to focus is painful. It’s like telling startup founders that they need to focus first on succeeding in a small market niche before attempting to tackle the vast market opportunity they’ve been pitching to investors. It can make them really uncomfortable.

And yet, they don’t yet have the means to go after that vast market all at once. They need to prove (to potential investors, to themselves) that their product concept is of tangible value to some users before they can scale it to all the users (a.k.a. product-market fit).

Don’t ignore the complex mess #

“Doing research with developer teams, something that really strikes me is how people look for ways to make complex problems easy rather than make it easy to work on complex problems.”

Dr. Cat Hicks (@grimalkina), Twitter (22 August 2022, retrieved 23 October 2022)

Another point that John makes is that simplification should not mean forgetting about the underlying, complex mess. For example, choosing to think of the sprawl of overlapping groups of users as broadly conforming to three, simple user personas can be a useful working abstraction, as long as you remember the underlying complexity.

The danger is when your organisation starts to believe there only are those three user personas and, in John’s words, becomes dumber over time as a result.

Do the hard work to make it simple #

There is a mantra among the UK government digital teams: “Do the hard work to make it simple”.

Product management does not ignore or gloss over the complexity of a task. Rather our goal is to make it easier for people to engage with and complete that task. That’s the hard work.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Focus first, then simplify

When you’re working on a complex problem, it can be helpful to think of it in abstracted terms to bring a degree of simplicity to it. The danger is when you start to believe the problem is simple.

Simple takes an incredible amount of work

[John Cutler / YouTube]

Doing the hard work to make things simple

Our fourth design principle is “Do the hard work to make it simple”. A team working at the Ministry of Justice have been putting that into action recently, trying to simplify a legal process known as “accelerated possession”, just one small part of the wider Civil Claims system.

Start with a thin slice of a complex probem

[Mike Bracken / Government Digital Service]

recent posts

Billion-dollar platforms — how they did it

I was asked recently whether platforms will conquer the world. My view? They already have. In this article I share how they’ve done it, and how you can successfully bring your own platform to market.

The ingredients for success

[I Manage Products]

An exercise in stakeholder alignment

When your stakeholders each have their own interpretations of the product strategy, this lack of stakeholder alignment will cause you no end of problems. Here’s what you can do about it.

A practical exercise you can run

[I Manage Products]

The 4 unintended side-effects of risk aversion and what to do about them

When we become more worried about risk, four unintended things also tend to happen: bottlenecking, erosion of trust, ossification of process, and a risk appetite that tends towards zero. Here’s what you can do about them.

It’s all about the safety net

[I Manage Products]

can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

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Helping people build better products, more successfully, since 2012.

PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from a 10-year milestone.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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