Build the Machine That Builds the Product

Product management roadmap machine

When we talk about innovative companies and organizations, we mean those that are consistently successful — not just lucky. However, when we have conversations about this topic they usually take a bad turn into speculation about the sources of success. There is lots of talking but little guidance and insight when “innovation” is discussed.

So what is the real secret of innovative companies? Maybe it’s about the founder’s smarts, location of the business in a technology hotbed, an experienced board, management cohesion, or something else that is hard to measure.

It’s none of those things. The truth is actually plainly visible if you want to see it. Understanding how things get made — that mechanical formation process — is the key for consistent innovation and success.

The urge for simplification in the media can muddy understanding about how good institutions actually produce things. The best ones have a framework in place that behaves like a learning womb. It consistently gives birth to new inventions on schedule and conceives new ideas. It is a specific combination of stuff which defines how the company creates, learns, and adapts to new information.

I call that specific arrangement of stuff “the Machine”
Actually bringing a product to market is a grueling process that transforms an abstract idea down into a very specific thing. The end of that process is increasingly mechanical, small, yet even when “lean” usually expensive. While talent and craftsmanship are critically important at every level, they are not sufficient by themselves.

Many people struggle with the tension between craftsmanship and ordinary manufacturing because they don’t yet understand the Machine. A good Machine makes sense of those relationships and helps to navigate hard choices as they occur.

That Machine requires its own making
Lots of people like to talk about “the creative process,” but whiff when it comes to having any insight about adaptive Machine structures. In fact, I think our culture generally has trouble seeing how strategy is directly connected with implementation.

People often complain how management needs to “get out of the way” so “stuff can get done.” But that’s a response to bad management, or more profoundly, a missing Machine. Properly utilized, the Machine connects strategy with implementation by coherently organizing everything in a way that can respond and adapt to the unexpected. New information — which is inevitable — actually makes the Machine smarter, better. Things that normally threaten fragility (time, change, volatility) if harvested can improve the Machine.

Innovating with the Machine
The parts of the production funnel with the most press coverage are usually the open mouth and the final product. But it is the Machine inside that really counts. The initial stages of ideation and conception can be a messy process because it involves experimentation, intuition, and research. It seems artistic. But, that process doesn’t start without a context. Deriving new ideas is a tightly integrated process deeply connected with the Machine itself. It is those patterns of production — forming, learning, adapting, delivering — which ultimately hone the wisdom for capturing new ideas.

The Machine funnel is bi-directional. As new stuff happens, procedures are put into place for moving meaningful data back upstream so it can help gauge the realism of longer term releases and goals. How much can we complete in three months, six months, a year? Will our goals be met in time? Do we have the right size team for what we are trying to do long-term? Having some mathematical sense of those answers helps to make decisive decisions about hiring, goals, and much more.

From the outside, the process seems creative. In actuality, it is knowable and has describable parts. It weaves together data, people, practices, and tools. The way they get woven together comes from a purposeful conceptual arrangement for (re)establishing priority. This Machine can greet new impulses with a sharp blade if they don’t support higher level goals, or roll them into a hierarchy of priority which downwardly cascades into proper alignment of deadlines.

Building your Machine
The future of software — and process management in general — will become about the tools which combine action and insight. New actions generate data and that flows back upstream with certain values. That aggregates into information which is then compared with achievement goals to provide useful insight for adaptation. If all this happens within the same tool, that’s powerful.

Convenience is key. The best tools will conveniently collect data as organizations work, allow the assignment of value to certain data, and then combine them into practical insight for taking new action. Being in charge of determining those values is where the power of meaning resides.

Success will come to those companies who create and use tools that work for them and conveniently combine action and insight into the same place. This requires both beautiful design and powerful engineering. Without good design, the tool doesn’t get used. Without power, beautiful interfaces yield no insight.

My metaphor of the Machine isn’t meant to diminish the importance of excellent people nor craftsmanship. Rather, it aims to put those things into the context of a structured process which isn’t whimsical about how effort gets allocated. Excellent people and practices are key for this process to work. The most influential business decisions come from choosing both wisely and consciously improving them on an ongoing basis.

Building complex things requires the Machine to manage critical assumptions and tactical direction in a way the provides clear structure for new decision making and accountability. I suggest that you should start crafting your own Machine right now and build products that matter.

This is a guest post by Chris Jagers. If you are looking for the tool to power your Machine, create brilliant strategy, and visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha! — the new way to create brilliant product strategy and visual roadmaps.

I am Chris Jagers and I love making things. I originally went to art school because it was the only field that allowed him to actually move ideas from conception through to reality while being guided by mentors on a continuous basis. This provided a feedback loop for learning and new execution. Now that I am running a company (Learning Machine) that makes complex software products, the process requires greater planning. So, I have been learning how to “create the machine that builds new products.” I have no formal business training, but am constantly learning.

Follow Chris @chrisjagers