Product as editing

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Product management analogies are commonplace. The diverse nature of product management work, where the emphasis varies from company-to-company, means an analogy can lift your point out of the particular and grant some perspective. The most famous product analogy quotes Ben Horowitz from his article, Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, where he says, “A good product manager is the CEO of the product.” This a great analogy because it provided an interesting lens through which to view the level of responsibility that comes with the role, and it has stimulated debate. Awesome. An analogy, after all, is a temporary standpoint from which to view our work. Its purpose is only to help unblock our thinking or shake us out of well-worn paths. For this reason, I intend to work on a series of articles over time, exploring some of these product management analogies to see what we can learn and understand.

To write is human, to edit is divine.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

To edit means “one who puts forth.” As an Editor, your job, whether working with words, film, or any other medium, is to collaborate with the author or director to mold the raw output of their endeavors into something ready for broader consumption. To put it forth into the world. To do this requires meticulous attention to detail in pursuit of realizing the vision of the author or director and making it ready for publication and release. 

To this end, the editor must deeply understand the objective, or direction of the work, and the audience who will consume it. The through-line for this is the story. There must be a strong narrative, whether it is fiction or fact, film or words, and the editor is as much a storyteller as they are a technician. The story is the reason that decisions can be made on what to keep, and what to cut. 

The story is also the basis for a fruitful collaboration between the editor and filmmaker or writer. Both parties are bound to the work by an understanding and belief in that story and a desire to see it out in the world. Through this mutual belief and collaboration, they reach a consensus on the many decisions they will face in pursuit of the final goal.

And so we see that a huge part of the editor’s role is to make decisions. Over the course of a project, or day, they will make hundreds of them, and most will involve cutting. Because as an Editor that truly understands the story and the audience means that you are ruthless in removing obstacles to communicating that story. Taking film editing as the prime example, the Editor is working with a mountain of raw material, many hours of footage beyond what is needed or could be released. The editor must wade in and reduce, cut, and trim, to uncover the best version, in the best order. 

This is the crux of the analogy. To find the solution, the editor is an expert at reducing. Stripping away the cruft in search of the nuggets that propel the story forward. How they make those decisions is a combination of skill and instinct but each one is grounded in the understanding that to remove or reduce is to produce

A product manager, therefore, can be seen as the editor of the product solution. You too are working with a mountain of raw materials in the form of customer research, market and competitive understanding, business objectives, and stakeholder requests. In order to extract and mold those pieces of critical information into products, you must first have your through-line established, the story you are telling, and who you want to be listening when it is released. This story in practicality may be a business problem or a particular task your user must complete, but it is the steel core around which you must make your decisions. 

This is the same for how you make decisions and who you work with along the way. Your collaborative partners are the company leaders and stakeholders who must understand the direction and get behind the solution, as well as provide helpful feedback. The engineering team and designer are your editing partners. They will also be making decisions every day that determine the efficacy of the final product and so must be as infected with belief in the story as you are in order to make quality decisions.

As for those decisions, I love the emphasis of the editor’s role in removing and reducing. That to build something you must spend most of your time cutting. Because with each decision to remove, guided by solving the root problem, you are, in fact, adding to the user’s understanding, and their ability to use the product. You need to allow the customer to build a clear, uncluttered, mental model for how the product works and what it will do for them. With that comes vastly increased comprehension, utility, and emotional appeal. This is hard work and often means that good material must hit the cutting room floor. A task that all good writers and filmmakers are accustomed to.

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

So, step back every day, and edit your product. What can you remove that will tell your product’s story better? 

Inspired by Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

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