A Musician’s Guide to Product Management


A Musician’s Guide to Product Management

I am a drummer. Technically, a percussionist. I’ve played in everything from symphonic orchestras to death metal groups. Yet a strong sign you’ve progressed as a drummer is through your comfort playing Jazz.  Not Whiplash, but Jazz. So it struck a chord so to speak, when our client said, “we’re playing jazz, not scripted music.” This was his response to a team member who voiced concern over the product intent and hitting a timeline exactly as planned.

The product is taking natural twists and turns and with it, we need to prepare for some improvisation.

The Importance of Improvisation

A product vision must be grounded in a sound business model, a baseline user experience and in preliminary customer input.  This loosely structured grounding, will provide direction without spelling out every detail.  It will force your team to fill product gaps.  Good product management requires room for interpretation.  Team members need room to discover and solve problems.  If you’re scoring a jazz piece, it’s not uncommon to write, “fill,” “solo,” or nothing at all. Any product owner who aims to have every detail filled in up front, doesn’t score Jazz.  Know the gaps. Know your team’s strengths. Let them solve for open issues and force controlled improvisation.  Sometimes it’s a simple design trill, or other times you can let your developers pull a Blue Train on a 13 point sprint. As a product leader keep the team inline with the vision. Then use that structure to let them improvise to create something special.

Anticipate the Music

You are always performing. Always changing to make the performance better. This occurs during any musical performance.  You have to adjust for weaker and stronger players.  You have to play a little louder or softer, pull or push, or compensate with many other adjustments.

A great musician compensates and anticipates what each member is contributing to the sound. They stick to the sheet music’s intent while adapting to their team members to bring the music to life. This is no different when working with a designer, developer, content expert. They also understand when to improvise without pulling from the intent of the music.  When the team understands product intent they become stronger with approaches for improvement.

Work with your team and encourage improvisation. Some positive consequences include; better understanding of the product and willingness to try ideas. Improvisation forces teams into the same healthy discomfort you feel when you improvise for a few bars. This isn’t to say turn into a jam band.

Too Much Improvisation Gets You Nowhere

One of the beautiful parts of music is recognition.  When you hear it, you know it. This means every song has a pattern that when played, represents that song.  Too much improvisation will change the structure of that song so much, that it will become unrecognizable.  Beautiful perhaps, but unrecognizable.

Likewise trying to reinvent wheels, code for the sake of it, or spend days designing something for the beauty of it will not create a product that sounds good to anyone’s ears. Too much improvisation is chaos. There’s a chart in front of you. Play the damn chart.

Embrace Discomfort

The unpredictability of Jazz is gorgeous, difficult, open, intricate and uncomfortable at times.  Yet its flawless delivery makes it mesmerizing.

Ground your product vision in business, customer, and experience objectives. Know these are guideposts (write and know your score).  Practice run through the piece and get comfortable with it. (Talk to your team leads and think about where the product can go, improve based on their feedback.) Don’t be afraid to react to your audience. (Sometimes a sales opportunity, customer feedback or other factors make you change your interpretation. That’s ok.) And embrace the discomfort of change on the fly (Improvise in the spotlight).

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