Product Management and the Hero’s Journey

I recently read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Considered a pivotal piece of work for anyone interested in storytelling, Part I of the book outlines the “Hero’s Journey”, which is somewhat of a framework that you can see in almost any movie, story or myth.

I thought it would be interesting to think about how product managers could use this framework and these principles to create better products.

The basic premise of the hero’s journey is simple: a hero is called on an adventure that causes them to leave their unknown world and enter that of a scary, unknown world in order to achieve some goal. Usually with the help of a supernatural aid or mentor, the hero will face a series of challenges that will help them get closer and closer to their goal (“The Ultimate Boon”), eventually achieving it.

As the hero returns back to their known world (with the boon), their job is to share what they have learnt with everyone else and become almost godlike in their wisdom.

There are countless resources that show how the hero’s journey crops up in almost any movie. As an example a google search for “hero’s journey” “finding nemo” returns over 23,000 results. Go ahead and search the first movie that comes to mind… you’ll probably find an analysis of that movie and the hero’s journey.

As I was reading the book I couldn’t help but think that this structure could be applied to the work I do in Product. Here is my attempt to use the hero’s journey as inspiration for product management.

The user of your product is the hero

Every product has a user. As a product manager your job is to understand the needs of your users and then create the best experience in order to help them achieve what it is they need to do (whether they know what that is or not).

Think of your user as a hero who is going into the world with a goal in mind. What can you do to make them successful in their quest?

Campbell mentions that the adventure for the hero usually appeals to some deep, unrealised desire. I see this as an important reminder that you must solve an intrinsic problem for your user, not just something at surface level.

Related to this…

Your role is that of the supernatural aid or mentor

You are Obi-Wan Kenobi. Your user is Luke Skywalker. Mentor them and guide them to achieving greatness.

The only way that you are going to achieve this is by truly understanding and empathising with their needs / desires and being one step ahead, predicting future challenges they may come up against.

A good product manager doesn’t learn this from sitting at their desk – talk to your customers, run UX research and surveys, track opinions on social media… All of this stuff will help you play a hidden role of mentor, taking this knowledge and building a better product for your user.

As your user interacts with your product, you want them to feel like there is a hidden force helping them succeed.

The hero achieves the Ultimate Boon

The goal of the hero is to reach the Ultimate Boon. This can be a material object or something less tangible.

If you work in e-Commerce you could see this as the user making a booking.

I would encourage you to think more about the intrinsic value you can create for your user.

For example if you work in travel, don’t just focus on helping your user book a hotel. Instead, work out what this unlocks for them – time with their family, social creds with their kids for booking the cool hotel with the massive pool, a relaxing escape with their partner away from their day-to-day lives, etc.

Kill the “Road of Trials”

Prior to receiving the boon, the user usually undergoes a “road of trials” that test them and prove their worthiness. Not to sound judgemental but your product probably has a series of frictions that make it harder for your user to achieve their goal. Complicated forms, poor search experiences, confusing info on a product detail page.

Be the supernatural aid and kill these frictions for your hero.

The hero’s return and opportunity for referral

The hero succeeds, returns home and the town celebrates. Campbell mentions that the hero is responsible for sharing their wisdom with the rest of the world, in order to help them all achieve greatness.

This is the perfect opportunity for you to drive a referral by making it easy for the hero to share their success and help others become heroes in their own journeys.

The channel, timing and incentive for the user to refer are all important and will be specific for your product. This is where truly understanding the needs and desires of your user will help set you up for success. Test, test, test, … different ways of doing this in order to find the optimum method.

So that’s it… the hero’s journey meets product management.

I hope you’ve found this useful and wish you luck in your journey to become a heroic product manager!

 

4 Takeaways from “Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future”

Book 2 off the 2018 list and this one took me behind the scenes and into the mind of Elon Musk, one of the most innovative entrepreneurs of recent times.

Documenting his life through a series of businesses (Zip2, X.com, Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity) and product launches, Ashlee Vance pieces together facts, timelines and perspectives from his loved ones, employees (ex- and current) and business partners. Additional insight is provided via interviews with Musk himself.

Posting about this is rather topical as earlier this week SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into space aboard SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket; a move that not only marries two of his greatest achievements but does so in a style that is very Elon Musk.

Having finished the book, here are 4 things that I took away:

1. Finding the opportunity in stagnating industries

Banking, cars, space travel… these are all industries that had plateaued in innovation and become highly inefficient due to dated tech, politics, complacency, etc.

Throughout the book I really admired Musk’s ability to look at these industries, learn as much as possible about them today and then find an opportunity to do things more quickly and cheaply, ultimately turning them on their head.

2. Always in pursuit of the long-term goal (or purpose), without compromise

With such big goals (e.g. creating a colony on Mars) it became apparent to me that Musk works ruthlessly to step closer and closer, thinking in years and decades, whilst creating short term momentum and never compromising.

Whilst the rest of the world was making hybrid cars, Musk was working through the challenges that come with committing to a more ambitious and long-term goal (a purely electric car).

This was also clear in an email written by Musk explaining why SpaceX wouldn’t be going public soon, demonstrating his desire to protect the long-term and not get into a situation where he has to compromise to appease investors (who potentially think in short-term gains).

3. His approach to deadlines and ownership with his employees

Musk clearly knows how to hire talent. Across all of his companies he’s been able to find people that align themselves to his mission and then work tirelessly to help achieve this.

One passage that stuck out to me was around how he defines deadlines with his employees:

Where a typical manager may set the deadline for the employee, Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their delivery dates. “He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this by Friday at 2pm … He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at 2pm. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel.

Very nuanced but when combined with self motivated, bright individuals you can see how this is a far more effective way of creating a culture of ownership and accountability within an organisation.

4. Acronyms and inefficiencies in communication

Whilst this made me laugh, it is an example of how important it is to preserve clear and effective communication when starting to scale.

Sent in May 2010 via an email to SpaceX employees from Musk himself with the subject line “Acronyms Seriously Suck”:

“Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grew is incredibly important … No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance”

Well said… and another example of Musk removing any possible threat to his businesses achieving their big, big, big goals.

Overall…

This book was an excellent dive into Musk’s life and exploration of how he has been able to create multiple businesses that are disrupting long standing products and industries.

On one side, he reads like a harsh leader that demands a lot from his employees and would fire someone who has worked for him for years and years without a second thought. On the other, his continuous drive to achieve the impossible and dedication to creating a better future has commanded respect from many all over the world.

I’m excited to see what he does next.

5 Takeaways from “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”

I mentioned in a previous post that in my attempt to read and create more I would be posting every time I finish a book, with any learnings and takeaways I have. My hope is that by reading this and future posts, you will either be inspired to read the books I post about or they will trigger your memory back to when you read them.

So here goes… first up: Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp (@jakek), John Zeratsky (@jazer) and Braden Kowitz (@kowitz).

Published in 2016, this book covers the process Google Ventures use to help companies quickly test new ideas to solve the big challenges they are facing, all with the aim of giving them tangible learnings that they can go onto develop further. It turns gut feelings into prototyped solutions that are validated by real customers… all in 5 days… saving time and money whilst giving confidence on what to do next.

Particularly relevant to start ups it’s no surprise that this book features in the top 10 of the crowd voted “favourite startup books” on Product Hunt.

The basic structure of the design sprint is as follows:

  • Monday: set up the sprint (long-term goal and questions to answer); interview experts; pick a target for your sprint
  • Tuesday: look at existing solutions from a range of companies; sketch out competing solutions
  • Wednesday: choose the strongest solutions; storyboard
  • Thursday: build the prototype; do a trial run
  • Friday: test your prototype with real customers

The book covers in significant detail how to make your sprint a success and shares best practices that the authors have picked up along the way after running sprint after sprint after sprint.

Here are my 5 takeaways.

1. “How might we…”: Turning problems into opportunities

A bit about me… I work at a startup that is trying to disrupt the way retailers collect feedback from their customers.

Whilst the vision is inspiring, the reality comprises of many challenges that we need to overcome on a daily basis. Very often it’s easy to list out all the problems we face and stare at a full whiteboard, whilst a black cloud slowly overcasts the conference room (or so it feels).

“How might we” is a concept that flips problems and turns them into opportunities. By simply reframing a statement by starting with “how might we…” you are changing your approach, with an emphasis on idea generation and creativity.

2. Pens, whiteboards and stickers in; devices out

All sprints have a no device rule. No laptops, no iPads, no iPhones. If you need to check your email or IMs, wait for a break or go outside.

Throughout the book there is an emphasis on scribbling things down… on the whiteboard, on post-its, on paper. For anyone who knows me, this is music to my ears… or eyes… or fingers. I just don’t feel the same level of engagement or inspiration when typing a list on a shared screen than when physically writing things down.

I also find the likelihood of checking out and checking emails when a laptop is sat in front of me to be unhealthily high.

Similarly, to help identify popular ideas and features amongst the group, stickers are used throughout the sprint to help individuals vote for what they like. Again, stickers are visually engaging (they can create a heatmap within seconds), physical and more social… hands in the air or numbers in Excel are not. Amen.

3. The Decider and what to do when they can’t always be there

I’m a keen preacher of “a camel is a horse designed by a committee”. Not because I hate democracy or working in groups, but because I’ve experienced many projects where too much time has been spent over discussing decisions and ultimately failing to find a universally agreed solution, without diluting ideas or de-motivating key team members.

Right from the start of the sprint it is clear to everyone who the key decision maker is (the Decider) and whilst they can use crowd votes to help guide their decision, they have the ultimate say. If the Decider can’t be in the room at all times, they elect someone to make decisions in their place. Simple, clear and maximises the chance of a successful sprint.

4. Everyone watches user interviews on day 5

So the group of sprinters have met for 4 days, identified the target, attempted to solve real problems and designed the prototypes. On the final day, customers come in and interact with the prototype in a series of one on one interviews. Whilst the book covers all of the best practices related to this, the bit that stood out to me the most was that all members of the sprint watch the interviews via a one way video link.

After 4 days away from business-as-usual work I can imagine that the desire to get back into it is very high. The authors make the point that if just the Interviewer is involved in day 5, it would be until well into the next week before everyone sees the results and meets to discuss next steps, losing momentum.

By having everyone watch at the same time you are ensuring that learnings are gathered and shared by all before the end of the week. Going into the next week, the group will have a strong idea on what they’ve learnt and where to focus next.

The other benefit of this is that everyone watching means that the learnings are not solely reliant on one person doing a write up and forwarding to the rest, likely resulting in individuals not believing or trusting the customer feedback.

5. And finally… healthy lunches and snacks are emphasised throughout the sprint

This is a very small point but I liked the fact that the writers covered what people taking part in the sprint should be eating. Thinking about when I’ve previously taken part in group workshops or hackathons, I’ve found it very easy to jump to Red Bull, crisps and candy or overly indulge at lunchtime, kicking off a food coma at about 2pm. Apples, bananas, nuts, dark chocolate – all present and accounted for.

So… those were my 5 main takeaways from Sprint. Overall it was an incredibly useful book to read and one I can see myself referring back to time and time again.

Going forward I’m excited to use this framework and apply it to future products I work on.

2018: 6 Books I want to read

I mentioned in a previous post that reading more is always a goal of mine. Here are a collection of 6 books I’m hoping to attack first (with comments as to why).

1. Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

by Jake Knapp with John Zeratsky & Braden Kowitz

sprint

This book seems to have become somewhat of a bible in the Lean Product development world; validating hypotheses and collecting real customer feedback within 5 days. Quick and data-driven… sounds good.

2. Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future

by Ashlee Vance

elon

Many friends of mine have read this book and I feel a bit late to the party. I’m hoping to learn more about the man who seems to think about the world in a different way to everyone else.

3. Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams

by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson & Nate Walkingshaw

productlead

I’m someone who likes to read experiences other people have had, particularly in Product. It’s why I like biographies and business books written by CEOs. This book features many, many, many stories and anecdotes from Product Managers and Leaders – right up my street!

4. Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends

by Martin Lindstrom

smalldata

Last week I attended a meetup where this book was highly praised. As someone who believes in uncovering “the gold within the data” as a means of spotting wider customer behaviours, I’m excited to get my hands on this.

5. What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services

by Anthony W. Ulwick

whatcustomerswant

I’ve recently come across Jobs-To-Be-Done and Outcome-Driven Innovation. This book was recommended to me as a good starting point.

6. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

by Nick Bostrom

superintelligence.jpg

This book seems to be highly recommended by many thought leaders in tech. As someone interested in A.I. I thought it makes sense to better understand the dangers potentially involved.

What books are on your list?

2018 Goals: Books, This Website, Yoga & (Machine) Learning

7 days into the new year and here are my goals for the next 51 weeks.

This year I’m trying something new by posting them here in the hope that accountability will follow (willpower much?). Typically I forget to plan the “How” involved in achieving each goal so I’ve also included that. Along the way I am planning to post updates on how things are developing.

1. Read more… 1 book a month

This one pretty much features every year. I start off strong, then lose my way, then get back into it. A goal of 1 book a month is easily achievable, although I only managed 10/12 last year. I’ll be posting my list of books to tackle in a separate post very soon.

How will I achieve this? Read on the commute to work at least 3 days a week.

2. Create more… 1 post a week on chrishannay.co.uk

I have a big vision for what I want this website to be; in additional to being a portfolio of my professional projects, I want to use it as a vehicle to document my goals (hello), my progress, my takeaways, my learnings and my thoughts.

How will I achieve this? Related to goal 1, every time I complete a book I am going to write up my takeaways in a post. In addition to this, I have a backlog of content I need to get written (project write ups, previous book summaries, …). For the first few months we should be ok.

3. Stretch more… 1 yoga class a week

As I’ve grown older I’ve realised the problem with having tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors and a tight neck. Having just completed a full round of sessions with a chiropractor I’m determined to stretch more and improve my flexibility. A big plus to this goal is that my 2017 goal of achieving an unassisted hand stand was a complete and utter failure so let’s make this a case of “2 birds, 1 stone”.

How will I achieve this? My work is located near to a Virgin Active that does a good Vinyasa Yoga class on Thursday lunch times. This will be my first attempt each week. Failing this, I’ve recently got my hands on a Broga DVD which is exactly the same as the class I used to do… just need to hook the player back up to my TV.

4. Learn more… Machine Learning

It’s now been over 10 years since I started my degree. Throughout my years at Warwick I studied and used many different machine learning algorithms. At the time I had no comprehension of how important these and other AI would come to be. Enter 2018…

Screenshot 2018-01-07 at 9.04.12 PM
Growth of the term “machine learning” in Google searches since the start of 2012

Whilst I’ve worked hard to include aspects of machine learning into the Products I’ve worked on over the past 5 years (you’ll see this covered soon in my portfolio), I want to up my learning of the tools and capabilities available today.

How will I achieve this? Complete this course… it’s over 40 hours (~1 hour a week) and I will be playing with data along the way.

So here goes… 51 weeks to achieve the above… wish me luck! I’m excited to share progress and failures along the way.

If you’ve set yourself goals for this year, good luck(!) and let me know what they are in the comments below.