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🔮 The Four Futures & Product Management
Driving alignment around “What's going to be true soon?” before thinking about “How do we succeed?”
The job of Product Management is 10x easier if there is alignment within the team about the future environment that your product will operate in. This should be hashed out before defining the product strategy. Is AI going to disrupt? Will macroeconomic forces require more efficiency next year? Is Twitter going to block your APIs so you are out of business? There is a lot to answer before even getting to what your product is going to do!
So every great PM is an armchair futurist. I’ve talked about this before when I recommended the book Imaginable: How To See The Future or discussed interpreting blurry situations. Decision making under ambiguity about the future is worth geeking out about.
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Earlier this week, I discovered a framing about how to think about the future. It can apply to cities, societies, ideas, or - I posit - the industry your product competes in. It segments your point of view about the future into four potential quadrants:
Growth: Iterative progress with compounding greater results. This is what many businesses and politicians champion and protect (e.g. GDP growth). Your flywheels are working! Your externalities and impact on the marginalized must not be left unchecked.
Constraint: A belief that there will be less resources and abundance in the future than now. The facts about Global Warming are creating this point of view about the future for instance, or so does any economic recession. Efficiency and learning to do more with less are key themes.
Collapse: The future is full of destruction and resets. This is popular in dystopian fiction and worst-case scenario planning. Depending on your opinion on the corruptness of the current system, it is not always a terrible thing. Responsible deprecation, loss mitigation, and avoiding tribalism are key themes.
Transformation: A future where non-linear jumps to a new paradigm will reset the rules. Technology or novel philosophies can be a catalyst. This is often the focus of “What if?” futurist thinking. Non-consensus thinking is key to generating potential truths for this quadrant.
Jim Dator at the University of Hawaii developed this framework as a tool for having structured conversations about possible future outcomes.
Applying to Product Management
This framework can be used for any future thinking, for example a brainstorm that develops four potential future worlds, once for each of the four quadrants. As you’d expect, the strategy of a product often must evolve and adapt depending on the environment it needs to operate in:
Growth: If an industry has flywheels established, a PM’s job is to focus on iteration speed. Get in as many reps as possible to capture the iterative, compounding growth. It’s land grab time.
Constraint: Many of us have had a crash course in this environmental point of view during these last 12 months of economic contraction. Here the focus is on efficiency, doing more with less, and greater discipline. Time is also spent preparing for the end of this environment and positioning yourself to capture more when happier times return.
Collapse: Deprecation and retirement have been an important part of my product making and there is a wealth of best practices in change management & ecosystem partnership to deploy. The collapse of a product line but the survival of the company at large creates one of the most important opportunities for a company to build trust with their customers and ecosystem.
Transformation: Given tech’s role in society to champion this future state, it’s worshipped in our product making industry. The AI paradigm shift is keeping this top of mind for many of us. It requires antibodies against the Innovators Dilemma, a focus on big bets vs. incremental experiments, product judgement, and a nurturing of non-consensus thinking.
Notice how much clearer the operating principles of a team are once you’ve chosen belief about a future environment. Think about how much harder defining a strategy will be if there isn’t alignment on the 2-3 year future for your industry.
Navigating Transitions is the Key to Product Longevity
I’m curious to explore how a product team can use this framework to nurture longevity from their products. I work on products with 20+ years of history that have had to adapt under conditions that changes every 2-3 years. This required making bets about the future that take years to pay off.
A changing macro operating environment is a vulnerable time for a team - often team identify and self-worth itself needs to evolve. The team might be too addicted to incremental growth. Or it might have developed patterns around efficiency that are hard to break.
As a product leader during these times of transition, your number one job is to get ahead of it. Define and frame a new future for the team before it’s thrust upon the team reactively. This is how a team feels in control of it’s destiny and is one of those jobs that only the leader has the positional authority and high altitude view to navigate. The key, to put this framework into practice, is to drive alignment about “What’s going to be true soon?” before thinking about “How do we succeed?”
I heard about this framework from the keynote speaker at the Seattle Arts Fund Luncheon this week. Marc Bamuthi Joseph gave a fantastic performance on art’s role in transforming societies, moving forward social discourse, driving empathy, and existing mostly from the point of view of the outlier and therefore change agent. He talked about artist’s role in championing the Transformation quadrant, given this status as outliers. It was a refreshing non-technology-centric perspective that generated the spark of this week’s post.