Introducing: Productonomics

When it comes to my blog and thinking and writing about things of interest to me (and hopefully others), I obscenely violate of the best practices that I enthusiastically promote to all those I work with – “generate ideas, quickly share them, iterate, optimize, repeat”.  Well, I’ve decided to stop violating this practice and share an idea that I’ve had rattling around in my head for quite a while: Productonomics. The idea is not especially revolutionary or even very original (the title may make some of you cringe – it even does me sometimes, but hey – it’s catchy). It may be that I am just collecting a sub-set of ideas or putting a slant on concepts that have permeated my industry for a long time, but I think that my approach narrow and unique enough to add some insight and value.  Most importantly, I have found this way of thinking to be very useful and productive in a very practical day to day kind of way. I strongly believe that that all companies and “product people” can benefit from taking a step back and looking at problems through different lenses, and the lense that micro-economics provides is very powerful and insightful for those of us who need to make decisions on a daily basis about “what people want and how we build it”.

I got so excited when I started to pull together these ideas that I went out and registered the domain and had all these delusions of grandeur of having the “Productonomics” blog taking off and getting me a book deal or something… well – for now, I still own the domain, but I’ll just post here on quiet little and set the categories of those posts to “Productonomics”.

Theory, Yes, Grand Theory of Product, No


A very good post and some really interesting insight, IMO, from The Heretech a few weeks ago about A Grand Theory of PM and its useless pursuit (also cross-posted here at Forrester Blog) .  I couldn’t agree more, in that the information economy we live is is just too complex and dynamic to try and nail down solid “truths” about product creation.  In fact, I advocate for methods and process that are, in themselves, designed to be MORE dynamic than the products we develop and not less, as is the case now.  If you think about it, the moment you create an MRD, it is probably out of date — there is already a new competitor, a new social networking dynamic, a new API, or a new technology that either you don’t know about or don’t yet understand.  Tom Grant’s opening salvo says it all:

When you’re start working in an unexplored field of study, such as PM in the technology industry, it’s tempting to propose the Grand Theory Of Everything (GTOE). It’s also the worst possible time to develop a GTOE.

I do, however, believe that “theory”, as a general  tool is very important, not so much for  “explanatory power“, but as guiding principle, analytical aid, and in a sense, an intellectual “port in a storm” when things get really complex and decision making becomes very hard.  I have been threatening for some time now to begin writing about my views on how economic theory (specifically modern micro-economic theory) is an excellent aid in product creation and decision making (its coming, really), and Tom alludes to the sociologic Middle Range Theory as a theoretical guiding principle, which I think is a good and relevant theoretical framework for PM work.  Theory has to be part of a PM’s tool box, and that theory, frankly, should come from a wide and not a narrow area of knowledge. Ultimately, if one can turn to Thorstein Veblen or Elinor Ostrom for inspiration rather than chasing down an arbitrary goal set for clicks on a new feature, then I think one’s decision making might end up more consistent and oriented towards the long run and quality outcomes (of course, selling that kind of thinking across the organization might be tough). Start-ups and small, fast-moving companies don’t really have th time or the resources to be drawing on a ton of empiricism for their decision-making.  Yes, we all need to measure certain things and use the empirical data to make decisions, but we have to be realistic about what we can measure, and more importantly, what real decision producing meaning we can glean from the data. Tom also points to the problem with lots of arduous up-front research:

If someone can figure out why even the most meticulously written and reviewed requirements don’t stop some tech companies from making products that their users don’t like or can’t understand, that’s a big contribution to our little field of study

Indeed, Tom. I am actually going to take a stab at this, but even if I’m not successful, I firmly believe that the era of the 20 page MRD was dead at least 5 years ago. We aren’t philosophers, us PM types, but can certainly use their wisdom from time to time.