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Incorporating more "Product Play" into my life in 2023
Helen’s 23 for 23 list last week inspired me to have more intentionality in where I spend my time this year, including picking activities that will inspire joy and creativity.
Like many product folks, I spend a lot of time hands on with product. But I reflect a lot of that time is low calorie - only looking for bugs or focused on the What and not the What If and the Why.
So I plan to change it up this year. Specifically, I hope to incorporate more Product Play into my life in 2023. What is Product Play, you might ask? Well, it’s a term I just made up that represents the specific way I want to transform the way that I get value from my hands on time using tech products as a product maker:
Product Play (n). Time spent hands-on using your own product or others in the industry, where the goal is to be creative and idea generative. It should feel like play, not work, as play breeds joy, which primes the mind to be open to new ideas.
I plan to carve out a slot of time every week where I clear all other distractions and immerse myself in my own products and be curious about other tech products. It’s a time for synthesis and vision ideation while being grounded as a curious product user.
It’s not the only time I will spend using tech products, of course - but it’s a special mechanic that I’ll use to get myself into the right headspace, less focused on the day’s emergencies. I always like to say you should make your company work for you, and I’m excited to incorporate more play into my work time.
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Why Product Play?
The goal of Product Play is to be creative and imagine future product states that don’t yet exist. To get there, though, Product Play is really about hacking my mind state in three key ways, all of which are around connecting me with the essence of my profession and inspiring non-linear thinking:
Revel in the Results of Our Creations.
Like many of us, I was into Lego blocks as a kid:
For me, playing with the assembled pieces - rearranging them in real time to fit whatever game I was playing - was just as much fun as constructing them in the first place. So much of my time as a product manager is spent in the gritty creation process, so I’m looking forward to spending time more immersed in the final results as that reconnects me with what always has given me joy in life.
Kairos Time: Creative, Unbounded.
Many long time readers will know that I’m a fan of the framing of the two forms of how we experience time: Chronos time (ruled by the clock, structured) and Kairos time (creative, in the moment, meditative). Product Play is all about the latter. It’s less structured and fosters a more artistic mindset. It’s like a form of meditation.
Reverse Empathy With Creators
One of the ways I knew product management was right for me was after I had been in the job for a year or so, I found myself putting myself in the shoes of the creators of tech products I was using. It was a fun game to guess the constraints & tradeoffs they were making as I used their products. I still love playing that game - it’s a great form of synthesis and pattern matching that makes you a stronger creator yourself.
A Culture of Dogfooding: Leveraging Product Play
One of the most interesting cultural things to explain to new folks on my team is the culture of dogfooding vs. the culture of early customer previews. Dogfooding, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, refers to creating special programs so folks at your company can use your product and interact with your team in rich ways.
Folks from outside my team often ask “Well, we have a great customer preview program and are getting great feedback. Why is dogfooding still important? Shouldn’t we avoid building software just for ourselves?”
In truth, both are important, but there are unique advantages of dogfooding over customer previews. Dogfooding is enabling Product Play for your colleagues. There is a richness to feedback that you only get if it’s other product makers using your product and if they feel open and heard to riff with you on their experience.
Here’s a thought experiment that drives the point home. Imagine asking these two questions to someone:
“Hey, you have a pain that my product can solve. Can I get you in the lab to study how well my product solves your problem?”
“Hey, I deeply respect you as a product maker. I’ve got some emerging product that I’d love for you to immerse yourself in and then riff with me on the product’s evolution. Are you willing to jam with me?”
Both are important - everyone does the first one, and empathic product makers who know the value of leveraging other people’s product intuition through Product Play also do the latter.
The Product Play Habit
OK, let’s talk mechanics. New Year’s activities need to cross the dangerous Sea of Distraction before making it to Habit Island. Here are the bridges I’m building to get there:
Book Time. I already have Focus Time on my calendar, some of it will now be dedicated to this. Product Play is almost meditative - so it needs to be distraction-free. No multitasking.
Have a project or goal. This isn’t tire-kicking - I will relate my Product Play to a real need to use the product, for instance using a website creation tool to create a place to share information about a learning program for my team.
Asking “What if?” and “5 Whys?”. I’ll file bugs if I see them, of course, but this isn’t about quality and clarity. It’s about generating energy. I’ll ask myself “What if?” and also ask myself “Why?” and then “Why?” again at my answer at least 5 times.
Always write up thoughts, and sometimes share them. I plan on journaling my experience - writing helps me clarify. I’m going to be judicious on whether I share the write-up with the team - I don’t want to be randomizing. Some of this is about waiting for inspiration to strike.
Go far afield. I love the quote about how it is better to be pretty good in 3 areas and put them together in new ways rather than be an expert at 1 thing. It’s the essence of being multi-disciplinary. To that end, some of my Product Play will be with things far afield of anything I work on. Connecting gaming to enterprise software, for instance.
Worth pointing out if you want to try this yourself - your company probably has rules on using industry products and individual products have license agreements that govern their use for potential competitive analysis. Follow the rules.
Structure and process have always come naturally to me; time for creativity and artistic expression less so. So Product Play is a natural counterweight to my default behavior that I hope will inspire growth. In addition, I’m excited about my Product Play commitment not only for the expected inspiration but also for how it inspires joy and therefore prevents burnout. If you try it yourself or want to come along for the ride with me and be an accountability partner, reach out!