This is a transcript of episode 224 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
Squirrel and Jeffrey develop a metaphor describing effective product alignment, and suggest some ways to apply and misapply it.
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. You sent me a cryptic message this morning as a possible topic, and I think it sounds great because it’s kind of a follow-on of what we talked about last week. It just said: project=cook, product=nutritionist
Jeffrey: What does that mean?
Squirrel: First of all, it’s it’s hyper-compressed in order to fit into an SMS message that I was typing while talking to a client. So apologies for my mysteriousness, but it’s pretty easy to explain. I had a somebody who was talking to me about problems in their organization and they kept talking about how focused the IT organization was on solving problems. They’re quite good at solving problems! Using whatever tools they have, using whatever might be on hand, they can cobble together something, keep the costs down, and move from one project to another. I said, “Well, it sounds like what you have is a bunch of cooks, and when somebody comes and says, ‘I’m hungry,’ they take whatever is in the pantry and make something that’s halfway close to what that person wants. They try not to spend too much on the ingredients and they make a decent meal and hand it over. It also sounds like what you’d like is a nutritionist: someone who’s trying to understand that if the person asks for French fries and chocolate cake, that maybe that might not be the most nutritious breakfast. So possibly you might want to consider some juice and eggs and something else that might be better for you, and you might actually go out and buy some different ingredients other than what you have around already. That would be more like a product focus.” And he said, “Exactly. That’s a really great metaphor.” So then I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it and I could talk about it with you.
Satisfying Requirements, or Satisfying Needs
Jeffrey: All right, I think I got it now. I do like this. Last week we were talking about what it meant to be product-minded versus product-led and we ended up on product-aligned. There we were talking about kind of the whole company, and I feel like we’ve zoomed in now on the interactions directly about “what is the thing we’re going to make?” And you’re saying the project mentality is like you’re a cook taking orders and you’re thinking, “well, I’ve been asked for this. I’m going to see what I can whip up.” People come in and ask for a milkshake and dessert and you’re like, “Yeah, sure.” But a product is like, “let’s figure out what you really need.”
Squirrel: “And maybe we won’t do what you want because while you would really enjoy the milkshake that would only give you a short term benefit.” If someone shows up and says, “Yeah, I’d just like you to add these 17 fields to Salesforce,” and you look and say, “I see these are called customer mobile number one, customer phone number two, customer phone number three, and so on to 17. I think you might want to record multiple phone numbers, is that right?” “Well, yeah. Just give me the 17 I’m looking for.” The IT person might add the 17 columns and hope that person doesn’t come back with another 34 next week. Whereas a product-minded person would say, “we have a problem here of tracking phone numbers. How are we going to keep track of our clients who have many more phone numbers than we thought there would be? How could we solve that maybe outside of Salesforce?”
Jeffrey: What I hear when you say that is that people will still come with those, you know, 17 field request. But then like you said, a product-minded response is to convert it. “Let me understand what problem you’re trying to solve.” That’s almost like a mantra in what I witnessed not just with product managers, but also a good interaction designers or UX designers.
Squirrel: Good point.
Jeffrey: The designers are often some of the quickest to say, “can you tell me what problem you’re trying to solve?” I heard that this week loud and clear in a meeting where there was some pushback from a designer to a product manager, because the designer felt like the product manager was trying to dictate what the interaction would be rather than saying, “here’s what the clients want.” It’s important to have these conversations even when you have those slightly adjacent skill sets. Not all organizations have both UX designers and project managers, of course. Maybe it’s worth saying that I’m making a real distinction here between a UX designer and a UI designer because I think the UI designers are more like a food stylist.
Squirrel: Yes, I was thinking of that. For listeners who might not know, UI is user interface, UX is user experience. How do you see the difference, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey: Well, I think it’s actually kind of similar to the cook and nutritionist divide. The UI designers are the people who often get asked, “can you make it pretty?” That’s the tagline a lot of them don’t like, although some do approach the work in that way. “You’ve said you want 17 fields. Great. I’ll give you a mockup where the 17 fields look nice.” But a UX designer is focused on the experience of the user and they would say, “Wait a minute, 17 fields are going to be a terrible experience. Let’s talk about what you’re actually trying to accomplish.” I think the UX designers are often going back to really understand the world of the user and their real problems and therefore what things would be most helpful for them.
Squirrel: Well, that makes perfect sense. I’m not quite sure how to fit it into the analogy. If we go with food stylist for UI and something else for UX, I think we might be stretching it too far; I’m not going to try to push that any more distance. But it does seem to me that the analogy of looking at what your overall goals are, what your overall outcome is, does fit nicely for a nutritionist because you’re taking apart the request into its component pieces and often coming up with something that’s very, very different from what someone asked for. Which I will note, is also different from what my fear was last week. Last week I was saying “if you’re product-led, it’s the tyranny of the product organization. They’re going to squash everybody else’s views.” If you think of them as the nutritionist, they’re supporting the rest of the company. They’re saying, “Gosh, that milkshake might not be so good for you. The 17 fields might not work to accomplish the goal that you want. Let’s try to accomplish the goal that you’re looking for, that we’re all aiming for. Here are three ways that we could accomplish that.” That’s what I mean by product-alignment: I’m looking for everyone to cooperate in that direction, and if everyone can be thinking about what’s best for their health, what’s best for the health of the company, rather than their latest demand and whatever their stomach is growling for, that would be very helpful. Of course, then the puzzle is how do you get there?
Jeffrey: I think it might be worth saying here, we’ve talked about product managers and designers, but good developers often have the same instinct of looking at, “can I understand what problem you’re trying to solve?” Now the thing I’ve also seen is that as some people in development or product or design get this nutritionist mindset, “Let me understand the problem and help come up with a solution, that’s my job: to help you come up with a solution,” that can cause a lot of tension with an organization that’s used to simply placing orders.
Jeffrey: Often I see this from founders or experienced people who’ve been good product managers but have been promoted to a level where they no longer have the time to spend on client discovery, but still have strong opinions about what should be done. These people can often fall in the trap of delivering these orders. “Look, can you just do this? Just make it look like this? I met with the senior executive at the other company. We agreed that this is what they need. So just build it and please stop trying to push back.” Do you experience that?
Squirrel: Oh, absolutely, my clients complain about it all the time. The difficulty is that the person who’s giving that order is doing so with the same purpose. This is one of those cases where the interests align, but the positions do not. I’m quoting there from Getting To Yes, which is a wonderful book worth reading on that and many other topics. The interest of the person who’s been to see the senior executive and has the client order in hand is in achieving the same goal as the product-minded, product-aligned person saying, “actually, that might not solve the client’s problem.” The person who’s got the order has got what he or she thinks is an accurate understanding. The thing that he or she is usually missing is an appreciation that other points of view would be helpful. When you put it to them in that way, “I’m trying to accomplish the same goal as you,” if you use their language, “I want to satisfy this client. I think there might be a better way. Could we talk about something that would work better for them,” that often has a greater effect, but that requires trust with them, which you build up by understanding their language and their reasoning, which usually matches yours.
Jeffrey: Yeah. You took the words out of my mouth because I was thinking, exactly that. If you’re in that role of being dictated to and you want to change the dynamic? The unsuccessful thing I’ve seen people do is to push back and say, “Look, you’re doing my job. You shouldn’t tell me what to build, it’s not right for you as the manager or as the salesperson or as the executive to try to tell us what to do. We are software craftsmen, we are designers.” Whatever kind of positional authority people try to exert. You’re going to lose that every time. Even if you win, you’re not winning any friends. You might win in the short term.
Squirrel: Pyrrhic victory.
Jeffrey: Exactly. However, we have talked about this before, about having empathy for people in power. Really what you describe there was starting with empathy and saying, “I understand the goals, this is something that we’re going to be able to do for these people and it will help them tremendously.” Then I usually like to go on the line of sharing my fear. “I’m worried that we’re just looking at what they’ve said and we might be missing better solutions. If we were to talk to their actual users and if we understood their world better, we’d be likely to generate something even better, or we might be missing something.” It’s bringing in that fear that we might be missing something by just implementing without understanding. I’ve often seen that be more successful, but it starts with what you said, which is acknowledging the fact that we’re aligned. “We have the same goal, and I just have this concern. Does this seem reasonable?” I typically found that to be much, much more effective.
Squirrel: Indeed. I’d just suggest slightly changing that. I would make sure to ask them whether we’re aligned and you listen very carefully to the answer, because the language they use is often very, very helpful then in making sure you really are aligned and using their language back to them. So that might sound like this. “Jeffrey, are you being motivated here by pressure from the board, or from the customer, or is it somebody else who’s who’s bringing this need to you? Where did this order come from?” What would your answer be?
Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s great. I like that multiple-choice empathy you’re using there. “Well look, I talked to the client and the senior person there told me that this is what they need, and so I think if we can deliver what they’ve asked for, they’re sure to sign the contract.”
Squirrel: “Got it. So it sounds like your motivation is signing the contract and that this senior decision-maker is who’s key to signing the contract, is that right?”
Jeffrey: “That’s right. They basically said if we deliver this, then they sign. So let’s just deliver exactly what they asked for and everything will be good.”
Squirrel: “That sounds stupendous. You and I are agreed on getting the contract signed. I have a fear that if we deliver as they’ve described it, it actually might not work, and they won’t sign. So I have a concern about that. Would that be a bad outcome?”
Jeffrey: “Well, yeah, that’d be a bad outcome. I’m just not sure why that would happen if we do exactly what they said. How could that go wrong?”
Squirrel: “Well, let me tell you a few tales.” And I could go into examples where someone told me what they wanted and then that’s not what they actually wanted.
Jeffrey: I agree.
Squirrel: But you can see what I’m doing there is I’m focusing on signing the contract, which was Jeffrey’s motivation. In another case it might be pressure from the board, it might be winning more budget and an internal competition. There could be a lot of different motivations. If I know Jeffrey’s motivation, then I can make sure I align with it and use language relevant to it and stories that are relevant: stories of people who didn’t sign contracts as a result of accurate delivery of exactly what they ask for. That would be more meaningful to Jeffrey than if I were to give some generic argument.
Jeffrey: That’s right. What I notice there is you listening to what I was saying and responding to what I said, as opposed to having a pre-canned script that was not sensitive to what words I was actually using.
Squirrel: Yeah. Because if you’d said, “gosh, I don’t really care about it, but the order came from the CEO.” Then I’d stop talking to Jeffrey and I’d go see the CEO. That would have really changed my mind. But there could have been many, many different motivations, some of which would have led to very different actions.
Jeffrey: Maybe it’s comfortable to be a cook. The advantage is that you give people what they want and typically don’t get blamed. But you probably have more value as a nutritionist. Something like that? That’s what I got from this analogy.
Squirrel: Absolutely. If you’re feeling like a cook, go and find out more about the nutritional needs of the customers that are coming to give you the orders. What are their emotional needs? What are their commercial needs? What is driving their orders? And use their language in suggesting alternatives rather than simply saying, “no, I don’t want to be a cook anymore.”
Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right.
Squirrel: Great. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.