PRODUCTHEAD: Success theatre
PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.
like spinning products
Success theatre undermines the long-term potential of your team and organisation
Small changes can incite a large culture transformation
As organisations grow, they incorrectly start to value the importance of “process” over “product”
Measuring process distracts you from determining whether you are creating value
Quarterly planning is disruptive when it introduces too much new information at once
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The genius of Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day is seeing the novelty of a day lived over and over without consequences turn into a Sisyphean torture for Bill Murray’s character. Only by eventually changing his own selfish motivations and desires does he eventually escape the time loop, a more enlightened man.
Sometimes I find myself repeating something only to eventually realise that I’ve long forgotten why I started doing it in the first place. The repetitive process has become almost reassuring in its familiarity, while its meaning has been lost. I go through the motions because it’s the appointed time to go through the motions.
I felt this most keenly when forecasting annual revenue at one of the companies I used to work for. Each year, we’d spend weeks creating countless iterations of a financial projection for our product portfolio to be reviewed, rejected and rewritten. It was a repetitive and time-consuming process. It was also utterly devoid of meaning as the Finance and Sales teams would come up with their own budgetary forecasts that bore no relation to each other’s, ours, nor reality.
It was all very well to forecast a 30% increase in product sales, but it was difficult to see how that would happen if we were going to repeat next year exactly what we’d done this year when sales were flat. In the absence of any meaningful change in approach, we would see exactly the same outcome. And that’s exactly what we saw.
Why did we, like so many other companies, torture ourselves in this way?
One answer might be that we’d come to associate the wrong activity with the desired outcome. Perhaps long ago we used to do a combination of things, some of which directly translated into product revenue (working hard to understand and address unmet user needs), while others had no bearing one way or the other (annual forecasting).
Over time we had dropped the meaningful activities and retained the meaningless ones, still hoping that we would achieve the desired outcome by going through (some of) the motions.
If you’re in the middle of it all, it can be difficult to break free of the loop. Repetitive process has an organisational momentum to it: the activity is expected by all involved; and completing it is often rewarded in some way. Sometimes you need an external perspective (or the five whys) to lift the veil and reveal the inherent pointlessness. Then you can start doing something more worthwhile instead.
In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors gradually came to realise that his variations on the same mistakes led nowhere, and only by self-improvement and prioritising others’ needs above his own was he able to escape his personal hell. Maybe a similar approach would work at your organisation :-)
This week I’ve collected some candid articles for you that shine a light on the theatre of meaningless repetitive activity we find ourselves doing. Drop me a line if they resonate with your own experience.
Speak to you soon,
what to think about this week
There’s something about the phrase “success theater” that immediately hits home. You just know what it means.
It’s hearing you hit the quarterly goal, but knowing the corners you had to cut (and the people who will have to clean up the mess), listening to someone rattle off vanity metrics that say nothing, but claim everything, or being told you’re not a team player for having some doubts about a recent “win”. It’s all optics and smoke and mirrors, and the experience sucks.
“We’ve committed to a multi-year digital transformation program but all our measures of success are still focused on what date we’re going to deliver, all the requirements that need to be built, and making sure we stay within budget. If we ask what success is, we’re told it’s getting our project done.”
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As organizations grow, they begin to prioritize process over product. That impedes real innovation. When organizations realize this, they typically respond in three ways: By hiring consultants to do a reorg (that’s “organizational theater”), adopt new processes such as hackathons to spur innovation (that’s “innovation theater”), or take steps to try to reform their bureaucratic behaviors (that’s “process theater”).
[STEVE BLANK / HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW]
Recently, I was talking with my good friend Wil about going through the motions of Agile but not feeling like you’re making tangible progress. He raised the point that a common problem with Agile is that you can easily feel like you’re succeeding when you’re actually not.
[RAJ NAGAPPAN / MEDIUM]
This post is about making quarterly planning more effective. You may have an awesome quarterly planning approach. If so… You’re A Winner! For many PMs — especially at bigger companies — the process is fraught with pain and frustration.
[JOHN CUTLER / HACKERNOON]
Imagine you’ve just been told that you’ll be a member of the team responsible for the first manned mission to Mars.
Now imagine someone asks you how much the mission’s going to cost. The whole thing. There and back. By close of business on Thursday.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
Often the biggest barrier to your product’s widespread adoption is going to be whether it reaches product-market fit early on. Even if you do, you’re wrong if you think you never need to worry about product-market fit again.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
When companies set out to improve a service or redesign a product, the results can sometimes be underwhelming. Instead of delivering service transformation, the team recommends only minor efficiency tweaks. If this has been happening to you, there can be many underlying causes. I’ve identified a few common problems and what you can you do about them.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
upcoming talks and events
One of the few silver linings of the recent year is that it’s much easier (and cheaper) to get a product expert to speak at your organisation by video call.
I’ve spoken at various product management and technology conferences around the world. I share ideas primarily on the topic of product management, and this tends to overlap with agile and ethical product development, digital transformation, and fostering healthy product cultures and communities.
“Day 2 saw an impressive presentation by Jock Busuttil on user testing. He asked the attendees to lend each other a smartphone and take a picture. What a turmoil that caused ;-) ”
Marketing & Business Development Director, BlueGlass Interactive
If you’d like to book me to speak at your event, please get in touch.
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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from so many box sets — so little time.
Read more from Jock
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