Escape the Build Trap? Yes. Silver bullet? No.

mt-successfulIMAGE: Modern Toss

In “Escaping the Build Trap”, Melissa Perry presents a lively and cogent argument for a structured approach to building (digital) products, in order to deliver sustainable value for businesses and their customers.

That sentence only describes some of what Ms Perry explains in her relatively short and eminently easy-to-read book.

Perry’s book – like the approach she proposes – is well-structured. Using a narrative that’s “based on real events with the names changed”, she runs through how a fictional company (“Marqueto” – a highly plausible name) grasped the nettle of switching up their development approach from building more, more quickly, to building what adds value, in a structured way.

Along that journey Perry deals with why companies need product management; the strategy, processes and practices required; and how to organise to become a ‘product-led’ business.

It’s all really good stuff. Please do buy it and read it.

However I don’t read these sorts of books without reflecting on my own experiences battling with organisational change. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. I continue to be perplexed by the challenges transformational change brings, and continually develop my personal toolkit of ‘what to do when’. This is where I had questions.

First of all, while the fictional narrative makes for lively reading, the decisions Marqueto makes on its transformational journey come all too easily. The book skims over the very real blockers actual companies (particularly traditional ones) put in the way, and how to deal with repeated objections, obstacles, difficult politics and personalities. Perhaps that’s another book.

Second, the book largely features examples and stories from modern, digital organisations. There’s your Airbnb here, your Netflix there. And, oh look, there’s your obligatory handful of Amazon references too.

I realise that this is where we are all heading – to learn from companies who are ‘doing it right’. Or at least committed to ‘doing it better’. But I think while it’s fine to shine a light on who’s doing well, it’s just, well, more gritty to understand the companies who really struggled. Those who took the hero’s journey and failed a bunch of times before they figured out what they needed to change, and with the benefit of  hindsight, describe what tipped the balance to send them in a more valuable direction.

Did they bring in new blood, hire a consultancy for advice, outsource the lot? What were the drivers that created the urgency to do things differently? What role did just pure God-damn-you-all luck play? The fictional narrative conveniently glosses over most of this.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the failures and the struggles more than the successes. That’s where I’ve spend more of my career, and where I believe the elevated psychodrama of modern work happens 1.

At times, Perry’s book comes across like a sales pitch for herself and for her own consultancy business. I think that is regrettable. This habit is twinned with a penchant for naming people – positioned as experts – in the text as if we should already know who they are and what they do/have done.

I Googled a number of people while reading; who is Giff Constable, for example? Perhaps that was the intention – for me to find out more – but that intention was not communicated clearly in all cases. (On the other hand, diagrams and models from other practitioners field are clearly attributed). I do not solely blame Ms Perry for this as I’ve found lots of people in rarified professional circles do the same. So maybe this is just my own foible with ‘name-dropping’.

Finally, I found myself asking a broader question about the benefits of companies taking a ‘Venture Capitalist approach’ to funding digital products. Perry argues that companies need to make ‘big bets’ against an overall strategic vision like VCs do, ensuring both short and longer term metrics are in place to measure success, while properly defining the problem and experimenting in the here-and-now to prove which direction is most fruitful.

This is opposed to the traditional way larger companies approach their IT and software investments: the bureaucratic hell of annual budgetary planning, business cases, over-promising and failed projects. Yawn.

Of course, on the whole I support and actively advocate for Perry’s approach. However I wonder how traditional, publicly-listed companies are adapting (or will adapt). Failure is not a message large companies like to give to the City. As a result, senior people in these companies tend to shun failure and experimentation. This – in my experience – is drilled into people their whole corporate lives. Old habits die hard.

Meanwhile, the companies funded by VC (and private equity) money have life ‘easy’. They have no pension fund shareholders to satisfy on a quarterly basis; they are only driven by top-line growth (not profitability); and they frequently fall foul of the mores of any sort of corporate social responsibility. (I’m looking at you, Facebook, Uber and, oh, just-about-any successful Silicon Valley company).

So while I very much enjoyed the book, shared it with and recommended it to friends and colleagues, I continue to wonder whether adopting these fantastic, value-driving product management practices will lead to better products, happier customers and – importantly – more socially responsible outcomes.

Perhaps stellar product management isn’t the solution to all of that.

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1. Taking an example, I’d compare Escaping the Build Trap with Jim Collins’ book “Good To Great”. Collins does a fantastic job of bringing the struggles to life, with pithy quotes from leaders, data and other anecdotes. But then again he had a many-person-strong research team and five years to write it. So maybe this is unfair.

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