Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Designing the machine that makes the machine

In the past decade, I was hired as a product leader to execute multiple assignments in the human capital management, health benefits and financial services industries. Over the years I learned that when an organization hired me as a product leader they not only hired me to design the machine (the product) but also to design the machine that makes the machine. 

Elon Musk famously pointed out that “The machine that makes the machine is vastly harder than the machine itself”. He added "The extreme difficulty of scaling production of a new technology is not well understood. It is 1000% to 10,000% harder than making a few prototypes."

A product leader is hired to design the machine that makes the machine

Based on my conversations with a few CEOs and business leaders who hired me or wanted to hire me, I determined that the most important value a product leader is expected to bring to the table is the ability to define what the machine that makes the machine is, build it and run it. Very few job descriptions for a product leader (Director, Vice President or Chief Product Officer) call this out clearly, let alone define what that is. Even the hiring managers, who were CEOs of small companies or business leaders in a big company, were not able to articulate this very clearly to me. Instead they said one of the following things. These are real scenarios and quotes from CEOs of companies that hired me or wanted to hire me.

  1. Scenario 1: We believe we have a good idea to solve a customer need and have smart engineers who have some solutions. We need a leader to architect the product to ensure that it brings value for customers, validate it with customers and then rapidly scale it for hundreds of customers.

  2. Scenario 2: We have identified a major opportunity in our industry. We have smart people who have extensive experience in the industry. We are working with two customers to provide solutions. They are excited about what they see. But every project requires our engineering team and client services team to be involved every day. Our CEO, Client Services and Sales can’t agree on what is priority. We think a product leader can step in and provide a roadmap and deliver high quality products reliably.

  3. Scenario 3: We have a product that a few companies bought. We poured smart people and money into it. However we are struggling with delivering the product because there are competing priorities for our customers and we have a hard time delivering anything.

    Scenarios A, B and C are companies usually at the Series A funding stage if they are private. They may be small divisions within a larger public company. Such divisions resemble a Series A company in terms of purpose, autonomy, responsibility and investment.

  4. Scenario 4: We have delivered a very successful product. Millions of users are using it. They love it. We grew rapidly and hired many smart individual contributors who are great at defining and delivering features. However, we need product leaders who make the team work together well to serve customers at a scale we are not used to. The processes, skills, tools, artifacts and frameworks that worked for 1 Million users may not work for the number of users we have now. We need a product leader who can bring experience, hire new talent, mentor them, help them develop professionally, develop new leaders, bring wisdom, and execute with discipline in a regulated industry.  

Let’s now look at how a machine could be designed to meet these needs.

Ray Dalio, the leader of the most successful hedge fund in the world said that the role of a leader is to design a machine that can produce outcomes that meet an organization’s goal. He defined the machine as people and culture. I extended that framework a few years back to include what a product leader’s machine for delivering outcomes for a product company might look like. This is based on my experience executing about 4 assignments in the past decade. It has evolved over time.

Figure: The Product Management Machine

This is how a product leader can go about using this framework when starting a new assignment within the company or in a new company. This could be the first 90 day plan for a product leader.

Before accepting the assignment.

  1. Determine the maturity level of product management in the organization. Are you the first product leader? Is product management at an experimental stage? Is it valued and respected? The importance of product management for a company may change over time.

  2. Understand the mission of the company. For example, the mission could be to ‘democratize financial advice’, or ‘simplify navigating the healthcare system’. Ensure that you believe in that mission and its impact on society.

  3. If you are not familiar with the industry or subdomain, learn and get certified in the specific subdomain. For example, a year before I joined Castlight Health, I got certified in data science and machine learning from Johns Hopkins. When I joined the financial services industry, I called a few of my expert friends and learned the domain through a few work sessions. Recently I added some certifications on Financial Technology from Wharton University. Certifications and learning by conversations are effective ways to understand the domain. Now-a-days, you can learn almost any topic from top universities in a matter of weeks. One of the main skills a product leader needs to have is to know how to learn ten times faster than normal. I highly recommend this course that teaches you how to learn.

After accepting the assignment but before starting it.

  1. Listen  to engineering leaders to build credibility. Meet them for coffee or over the phone to understand their point of view and challenges. Convey that you are there to serve them well and you value engineering.

  2. Listen to client services leaders or user growth leaders and the support team leader to understand their challenges. Since they are responsible for retaining customers, they can give you raw insights into what is happening on the ground.

Month ONE

  1. Understand the top three priorities for the year from the CEO or the business leader responsible. For example, when I joined Jemstep, my manager and Jemstep CEO, Simon Roy made it clear to me that delivering the product to the first major bank customer was the top priority. At Castlight Health, my manager and current CEO Maeve O’Meara made it clear to me that delivering the predictive analytics and programmatic marketing product to Walmart and Mondelez was the top priority for the first year.

  2. People: It is important to understand people, their motivations and their character as quickly as you can.  Once you get the right people in the bus, the bus can be taken to the right destination even if it went in the wrong direction for a few days or weeks. But the wrong people in the bus will ensure that you fail. 

    1. Focus on people. Understand their current assignments and individual feature roadmaps. Recognize overlaps on assignments or features without a clear custodian.

    2. Understand their aspirations and mental models.

    3. Learn about their prior experience and place them in the pragmatic product management framework. For example, some may be closer to customers and not very close to engineering. Some may have deep experience in analytical thinking but not much experience in day to day execution. Some may be good at design thinking.

    4. Look at the artifacts they produce.

    5. Assess their mastery of the craft of product management.

    6. Design a learning map for everyone based on skill levels and gaps.

    7. Do not make any changes to people or organizations at this time.

Unfortunately there is no college degree for product management. It is likely that you will have a team or hire a team of people with varied backgrounds. All product managers irrespective of their responsibilities need to have a basic set of skills. For example, they needed to know how to write a user story. Verify the artifacts of even the most experienced product managers. You would be surprised by the lack of current skills. I normally put everyone through Pragmatic Product Management and key product managers through IDEO’s Design Thinking training programs.

  1. Process: The purpose here is to understand if there is a commonly understood way of doing things to collaborate with customers or users, define features, design them, define them for engineering and deliver them.

    1. Understand if there is a process for getting things done.

    2. See actual artifacts delivered by the product and design teams. A person’s writing pretty accurately reflects their thinking, knowledge, communication skills and attention to detail. Written communication is critical in today’s world of distributed teams.

    3. Understand how the product team collaborates with engineering. Impress upon them that they need to partner with engineering and earn their trust to be successful. 

    4. Understand the sharing of responsibilities between product managers and designers. 

    5. Make  minor process changes if needed. But do not change the process dramatically in the first month.


  1. Platform: The product management team and the design team need effective tools to do their work. These tools do not have to be expensive. Many of these tools can be simple document creation tools or spreadsheet based tools. Some will be off the shelf tools. Ensure that everyone uses them and is skilled at using them.
    1. Understand tools used for product definition and design

    2. Understand the tools used to deploy or implement the product.

    3. Understand the underlying technology platform from the engineering leaders.

  2. Product Design: You have to be familiar with the product in month 1. However, in month 2 you need to develop a deeper understanding of every persona, every user Journey, and every possible alternative flow. You may have to work with product managers and designers to accomplish this.

    1. Review every persona and the job they want the product to do.

    2. Review every user journey in the product. Ask the team for the user flow diagrams. Ask them to create it if needed.

    3. Review an entity relationships diagram if available with engineering. If not ask senior product managers to create an entities and logical relationships diagram. Train them to create one if required.

    4. Visit three top customers or prospects and conduct co-innovation workshops . If possible, spend a day at your customer support team’s offices and listen to 50 calls. I have not done this in my previous jobs. Instead I listened to recordings of calls that my colleagues made at Castlight. However, colleagues who did this in-person told me that it is very valuable. I plan to do this for future assignments.


  1. Product Strategy: By month three it will be clear if the team is executing towards the company’s goals. However month 3 is the time to take a deep look at data to verify if the current and planned roadmaps bring value to customers. It is also time to verify if the company is getting back some of the value or will get back some of the value in the future.

    1. This is the time to ask senior product managers to perform ROI analysis on major functionality if they have not already done so. 

    2. This is also a good time to have a workshop with the senior product managers to review if the features under development align with the goals of the company. Shreyas Doshi of Stripe has done a very good job of defining good and bad product strategy. It is worth a read to understand what needs to be done.

Communicating your work to the organization.

It is important to communicate what you are doing as a product leader to those who do the work following your directions and senior leaders who expect you to produce the desired outcomes. I normally send a weekly work plan email to critical leaders and colleagues outlining the main priorities of the week and what I plan to do and who I plan to work with. It serves many purposes. It helps the product leader earn credibility with product, engineering and key business leaders. It keeps the CEO and senior leaders informed about the areas of focus for the week. More importantly it also points out what the product leader is not planning to do. It gives others an opportunity to point out important tasks if they don’t see it. This is hard to do. But very valuable.

Applying this framework

This framework is based on my experience. It may not apply to every scenario. I am certain it won’t apply to any scenario and organization without some modification. I also want to point out that this is a machine that requires continuous monitoring and nurturing. It is not a self-driving car. It needs a driver, the product leader.

Product leaders could use this framework as a starting point when they start an assignment or a new job. Product managers who aspire to become product leaders could use this framework to understand how their product leaders might be approaching their work. CEOs and business leaders considering hiring product leaders (Directors, Vice Presidents, Chief Product Officers) can use this framework to understand what a product leader can and should bring to their organization. If you use it, let me know. I look forward to learning from all of you.

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