Creative Writing and Product Management

And now for something completely different.

No, not the Spanish Inquisition (bet you weren’t expecting that!) I’ve mentioned in previous updates how I have In Victrix drafted and half edited, and how I just don’t seem to find the time to finish it. This is mostly because of my day job — I enjoy it tremendously, I work long hours, and with the whole living-in-the-office / working-from-home I don’t get consistent quiet time. All reasons conspiring against writing.

Now, this blog is dedicated to the Three-R’s: Reading, Writing, and Romans. I blog the occasional Roman trivia, there’s plenty of book reviews, and writing will resume as soon as I could devote proper time to it. (Honest! maybe I’ll try that 15 mins a day thing).

My reading, however, has been split between fiction and professional non-fiction. I thought I’d give you a glimpse into the world of a product manager by reviewing what I consider the essential bookshelf, but also wax philosophical about the benefits of creative writing in a corporate context. If you aren’t part of the technology / corporate world feel free to skim or skip — normal blogging about all things fantastical would resume next time.


Part I: The Product Person’s Bookshelf

Once the product is launched and we hold a post-mortem, a PM will step up to the podium and say one of two things: if things went well, they’ll thank the developers for putting the hours, the designers for getting in the users’ heads, sales for relentlessly pursuing opportunities, and everyone else on the team for the their efforts. If things went badly, they’ll say “Sorry guys, I effed up“.

It may be tongue in cheek, but it’s true. A product manager is ultimately responsible for two things: solving the right problems, and ensuring the solution is fit for purpose. If it’s a success, it’s because everyone on the team did their job well. If it’s a failure, it’s because the PM messed up choosing what to work on and what to release.

In the interest of not being in the second position, I do invest in my professional career by reading a lot on the subject. I also coach those reporting to me in the ways of ‘product’, and help my senior managers in setting up a product-management practice across the organisation. (Teaching is a great way to learn. Maybe one day I’ll also write a book about the practicalities of real-world product management; if only I had the time, and inclination to market yet another line).

One thing I can safely say, though, is that the books below are good for anyone building a product in today’s tech-driven markets. Whether you’re a software engineer, a designer, a marketer, or sales — the below should be required reading for anyone who puts technology solutions in front of customers and users.

The books are listed in chronological publication date, and this isn’t a coincidence. This reflects the growth of the industry, and will help anyone coming in better understand the current state of the art by learning the concepts as they are built on top of previous ones. These aren’t books with a template of “do this in that way”, but rather books to change the way you think about building and delivering products.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper

Or as the sub-title says, Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. Originally published in 1999, it describes a problem software development still faces — focusing on a solution, rather than on the users and their problems. The book introduces the concepts of goal-directed design and using personas: trying to get into your users’ heads to understand the problems they are facing and what are they really trying to achieve. This helps ensure that any solution you deliver is fit for purpose, and addresses what the user wants to get out of the product (their goals) in a way that is meaningful and useful to them.

As has been said in other sources: you need to fall in love with the problem, not the solution (ie don’t get emotionally attached to a solution you think is neat, but always focus on the real needs you’re trying to address. Solutions often fail, but problems persist). I’ve had mixed success with rolling out personas to Engineering groups, but there is no doubt that just going through the exercise is invaluable for the product team.

Change by Design, by Tim Brown

The book at the heart of the Design Thinking movement. It touches on product development in general, not just software / tech related, but the concepts are important. It is the first to introduce the concept of product management as the intersection of Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability: will the users want it, can we build it, can we make a business of it.

The other notable concept in the book is that of divergent and convergent thinking and working, often rendered as a “Double Diamond”. When faced with a problem, you come up with possible ideas (diverge) and then narrow down to workable solutions (converge). You do this in iterations from defining the actual problems through detailing the solution. Brown uses prototypes to rapidly go through this product discovery, as cheaper options to fully building what might be a product no one wants (a bad solution, or worse — a solution to a problem no one cares about). Brown concentrates on the design phase as a separate stage, before it hits development; in modern software development this needs to be integrated into development, but the concepts are important to understand even if implementation can differ.

The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries

Ries brought the Lean movement from manufacturing to the hi-tech world. On a plant floor, ‘waste’ is too much work-in-progress, too much stock that just sits there unused and risk being never used (eg if a defect was found). In software development, waste is building the wrong thing, of spending countless hours polishing a solution to a problem that isn’t valuable or isn’t viable. Ries goes into a comprehensive review of how to effectively build a business — whether a startup or a new line within an enterprise — from establishing the problem, to what solution might work for it and the business, to scaling it up. It’s more comprehensive than a pure design focus, as it touches on both the desirability and viability aspects.

Inspired, by Marty Cagan

A good book that explains many of the practicalities of good product management for tech-driven products. Though some sections can get repetitive (not to say hipster-preachy) and it could use more concrete examples and case studies, it’s a good a review of the focus and techniques of product management. Cagan describes throughout the importance of finding the right solutions early by using cheap techniques over silo’d development for going about it, which is sounds advice. I just prefer the previous books for setting more of a mindset leading up to that. Still, there are invaluable parts in there about the how and why of product management, from building the team to engaging with customers.

The missing bits

You’ll notice an absence of anything about agile methodologies or handbook style works. While there is certainly a plethora of those as well as many courses on the subject for you to delve deeper as needed (I’m certainly very proud of my Pragmatic Institute Product Master certification), I strongly believe in creating the right mindset first. I’ve far too often seen an implementation of “agile” that is superficial at best, where organisations are far too concerned with process and don’t live up to addressing the core principles and needs that started the agile movement.

If your day-job involves building something even vaguely technology related — whether you’re a product manager, a software developer, or an industrial designer, whether in a start-up, or a media organisation, or an established software vendor — I think these books will fundamentally change the way you think about what you do. Not only will they help you communicate with your stakeholders more effectively (by understanding where they might be coming from), they will focus your efforts to deliver better solutions.

My take on Product Management

Product Management, or the product manager’s role, comes down to basically two things: ensuring you’re solving the right problems, and ensuring any solution is fit for market. The rest is a combination of common sense (surprisingly uncommon), a delicate balancing act (aka juggling chainsaws), and understanding a breadth techniques just enough to know which tool to use at the right time (like any trade; cramming up is a classic 80/20 split). One has to internalise some of the concepts first, and then experiment and explore the techniques to find what works for them and the organisation they work for.

Part II: Creative writing in a corporate setting

So where does this leave us with the usual subjects of this blog? So as not to disappoint regular readers, I wanted to touch on how writing novels influenced my professional career. This is centred on corporate life, but I’m sure it will echo in many other situations.

  • Ice breaker
    “So you write books?” has come up in job interviews and around the workplace since I first put it up on my resume and LinkedIn profile. I hardly mention it, but people notice and bring it up often, usually where small-talk or introductions are useful. Makes it easy to stand out from the crowd or find discussions with kindred spirits around lunch breaks.
  • The power of self-editing
    Having learnt the hard way to self-edit (all credit to the professional editors who patiently pointed things out to me) and be even more sensitive to language and punctuation, the same tools apply to business writing whether short emails or long documents. Sharpening and clarifying a business email is just as important as anywhere else.
  • Messaging
    In writing a scene you concentrate on conveying a feeling behind the descriptions of events. In writing a business communiqué you concentrate on a deeper message beyond conveying mere facts. There’s a lot of similarity, both in Product Design and Marketing where you have to enter the users’ heads to understand their goals (motivations) and speak in their language, and structuring the content to maximise impact of the key message.
  • Understanding own creative process
    I’m about 75% pantser — I kinda know where I’m heading, but not always the fine print of how to get there. Understanding my process in writing novels has helped my create business presentations; from getting the initial content through polishing and restructuring to deliver a deeply meaningful message.
  • Literary devices
    When my daughter brings me her English homework to analyse which literary devices the author employed, I tell her 🤷. But having a working knowledge and experience-based intuition in using the right device for the context (plus a desire, rather than fear, for getting creative) greatly enhances my capability to reach for the right analogy (or simile, or metaphor, or whatever the Eng Lit prof calls it). This is invaluable in crafting ways to convey meaning without repetition, whether in a presentation or coaching session.
  • Thick skin
    I’ve read the 1-star and 2-star reviews on my book, and I survived. Nothing you can say in a workplace-appropriate manner (and many NSFW things too) will get to me. Many workplaces try to foster a culture of “leave your ego at the door” (with differing levels of success), but nothing helps in that respect as publishing your art and learning to work with and learn from criticism.

Writing novels and short stories, and then working with editors, publishing, and persevering with the hobby, has had an absolute positive effect on my life. Even though historical-fantasy is a far cry from software product development, my professional career has many creative elements. As both are large parts of my life, it’s not surprising that writing has affected many other aspects, career included.


That’s it for now. I’m curious though, would you like to see more articles about creative writing and professional life / product management?

If not, regular blogging will resume next time. Until then head for the free short stories or novels for things far removed from the modern world.

3 Comments

  1. I think you can do both, realistically. You are very erudite in any case. I think reading this its helpful for me as a creative and to a degree, professionally . If you hit the right notes for both, as you have done here, then its a yes, and probably, in my pov, widen your fiction audience anyway. PS finish the damned book 😉

    Like

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