My 10 Favorite Productisms
Pithy sayings on product making
“This is a plus one, zero, or negative infinity exec review.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“Well, we’ve got everything we need already to succeed. So it means most likely nothing is going to happen as a result of this meeting - it’s just to inform and keep people updated. It’s a zero. Maybe if we impress people it’ll feel really good, people will respect our work. That’s a plus one - but there’s no realistic better positive outcome than that. Of course, if we really mess up, the whole thing will get canned. That’s negative infinity.”
“So there’s really not much upside is there?”
“Nope. So you really got ask yourself - are you actually trying for the plus one? Or are you just working to prevent the negative infinity?”
I love the little sayings and “inside baseball” terms that you develop around the office or in an industry. Teaching them to others is how you expand the tribe. Some represent battle scars bordering on cynicism, some are full of wisdom, and some are just downright funny. And they help develop common shorthand that helps with esprit de corps. Even today, when I check in with a peer about how a big review went, the first question I’ll ask is, “Plus one?”
I also think they are an interesting question to ask someone when learning about a new field - what are the famous sayings in your industry? What pearls of wisdom do you use most often? You can learn a lot about what an industry and a profession finds valuable that way.
For the past few months, I’ve been keeping a notebook of all the clever sayings and pithy terms I hear around the office or in product management literature I read. I can’t take personal credit for any of these, but together they represent an inside look at my job as a product manager.
Subscribe for weekly Sunday posts on career, leadership, and parenting. Our slice of life as two working parents. It’s free and by subscribing you support our work and allow us to rely less on social media.
🌞 “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”
I hear this one used all the time to coach people to get social proof for their ideas. Pressure testing plans, reviewing specs, putting things through the processes that we have - getting sunlight on them - makes them better. It’s an especially useful way of gently course-correcting a bad situation and getting folks the help they need.
Embedded in this statement is a truth about products when they have been around a while: There is always more opportunity and product surface than time and resources, so often things not looked at tend to atrophy. Getting attention on something & sharing out status is like opening up the curtains on a dusty room.
🥩 “A product has to have sizzle and steak”
The “steak” of a product is the core functionality: the main job that the tool is hired for. Good products deliver on the steak. Great products not only deliver on the steak, but they also have some sizzle too. This is the exciting and novel part of the product. Something that users will remember and reviewers will notice. It makes the product distinctive.
Often sizzle can be small and cheap - good animations upon boot and slick interactions that give the product a unique personality - or it can be a big bet like the emerging technology you incorporate to be novel. Often sizzle is more about intuition and storytelling than data & metrics; that’s OK.
It’s easy to get caught up in the steak when you are planning a big product launch. It’s a good shorthand to carve out the time to figure out some sort of sizzle, too.
In the cartoon the Flintstones, characters would get in a car that they had to power with their own two feet - no engine included (or invented, ostensibly, as all the characters were pre-historic cavemen). Flintstoning harks to the notion of being scrappy - getting going with something by just faking part of it and the term implies a lot of hustle on the part of the product owners. It’s useful to assess user demand without having to invest as much. Zappos was famous for starting out by putting up a shoe ordering website and then going to a shoe store to fufill an order. They flintstoned the warehouse part of the product until they were sure the idea had merit.
🔪 “You’re bringing a knife to a gunfight”
I like this phase because it focuses on impact thinking, focusing a discussion on potential results and readiness to compete and satisfy, rather than an execution mindset, focused on how hard something is. The most common disconnect I see at work is when one person is talking impact and the other execution.
Predicting whether an investment is going to have an impact is both a function of whether it’s good enough & whether it’s well matched for the battle it needs to fight. As an example of the first test, creating a mapping product is hard work and it’s an amazing accomplishment that Apple Maps even existed when it first launched, but of course it was insufficient versus a vastly superior Google Maps. Google Wave being fluid and a joy to use, but just not for any job that anyone found a need for vs. standard ways of chatting, is an example of the latter.
I don’t like metaphors involving violence in general, but since this one mostly refers to Old Western movies, I think it’s appropriate. To drive the point home in that context, you’ll get no credit in the Western standoff for a knife, no matter how hard the knife was to make or how good the knife might be for other uses.
🔨 “When you got a hammer, everything looks like a nail”
This is a form of bias in product design. Often we fall in love with our own products, architectures, and platforms. Often we think they can solve every problem and indeed sometimes we’ll redesign the problem subconsciously to fit our preconceived solutions. It’s natural to want to take the safe bet and use that hammer that you have and know works, but is the problem really a loose nail?
For example, imagine you are Microsoft and you see Facebook come on the scene in 2004. Your first reaction may be to dismiss it as something small that could be added to Outlook. Just one more feature of a comms tool, and you’d want to leverage the scale Outlook already has, right?
🥜 “Peanut buttering”
Peanut buttering is the act of spreading your resources so thin that you try to do too much. “I’m afraid the Q2 plan is just peanut buttering the team across too many stakeholder priorities.” It’s so tempting as a portfolio manager to sign up for too much and end up with subsistence-level resourcing on projects, so it’s great to have a term that champions doing fewer things better.
🛠 “Come for the tool. Stay for the network.”
Lots of deep product wisdom is embedded in this one: User pull - the reasons someone went and acquired your app - was probably because it fulfilled some specific user job they were looking for. They found and acquired a tool. However, what will keep them coming back is the network you build around the product - are there enough other people using the product that users are pulled back in by others and they can complete their social workflows that the tool requires.
Modern tools like Figma and Canva represent this - clear tools you can hire for important jobs in your life, and what drives long-term and frequent usage is that the rest of your team uses the tools as well.
Building a product that exemplifies this phase is pretty much the definition of #winning in product management.
✈ “Changing the engine while the plane is in flight.”
I love the visceral nature of this common phase in cloud services. Every day there are service engineering heroes who are forced to fix problems while hundreds of millions of users are currently using their service.
I’ve been doing Incident Manager duty twice a year for almost a decade now, and it takes a certain unique type of thinking for these crisis situations - a focus on remediation vs. root cause, carefully evaluating risk factors, rotating in fresh pairs of eyes when needed. It truly is living the hyperbole embedded in this phase.
👕 “Fit before scale”
This is perhaps the most important adage that defines the art of product management. Finding and proving product-market fit - so knowing that your product can drive to engaged users or whatever metric you want to define - before you add all the scale engines (SEO marketing, field selling, partner motions) is so critical. You’ll have a “leaky funnel” - meaning you are churning lots of users out of your app and they don’t come back - if you try to scale too quickly.
Many pandemic flash-in-a-pan apps - Clubhouse, House Party - are examples of where the scale engines were applied too quickly before they found enough fit.
🏰 “Outcomes not empires”
There is a bug that infects you when you’ve been working in big tech for a long time. You define your worth based upon your scope. More charter! Bigger team! Grow the empire! Great product managers resist defining their success that way. It’s a reframing to ask someone - would you rather increase your scope or would you rather have the mandate to drive a bold, exciting, and critical outcome for the business and customers?
What are your own favorites?
I know you must have some of your own productisms, or even terms of art from your own profession if that’s not product management. Share it out in the comments or hit me up on Twitter at @AdamHarmetz!