Last week, I explored some ideas about how to structure your product team that I picked up from INDUSTRY The Product Conference 2019. This week, I want to explore another take away – the importance of context.
That’s not to say that anyone explicitly talked about context during one of their sessions, it was just an underlying theme that I picked up throughout the course of the conference.
I’m also perfectly willing to admit that I picked up a theme of context based on confirmation bias.
It really hit me listening to Jason Fried’s fireside chat on the second day of INDUSTRY. I enjoy reading what Jason has to say and appreciate the fact that he shares how Basecamp operates, and why.
I’ve also come to realize that Basecamp is able to operate the way it can because of its context (A company with 50 – 60 employees, two main owners, and no investors). When you listen to Jason talk about Basecamp’s hiring approach, or that they don’t use roadmaps or that they don’t have backlogs, remember all of that in terms of the context in which they operate.
That’s not to say that there’s no value in reading what Jason has to say about there approach for people who don’t exist in the same context. There is, especially because Jason is usually pretty good about explaining why they work the way in which they work.
If you’re paying attention you can hear what they do, why they chose to do things that way, and then consider whether you can adopt, or adapt, that approach based on the differences between Basecamp’s context and your own.
I know I won’t be able to implement everything that Basecamp does on my team, but I have adopted some philosophies (such as an allergy to unnecessary meetings) and there are other things I’d like to try out, such as hill charts.
So when you or others in your organization want to expand your product management knowledge, it’s important to understand your context and the context of the person you are learning from.
Having been a trainer and a coach in the past, I’ve found it’s easy to gloss over the impact of context when you’re helping others learn new skills or ideas (this applies equally to product management, product ownership, business analysis and agile). What’s more, because you often don’t have an opportunity to truly understand the context of the learners, a lot of what you teach often does not stick once you leave.
That’s why I’ve altered my approach to working with companies to instill internal product skills. I look for opportunities to join a team in their organization and live in their context. This way I help the organization gain some value from helping a team produce a product, and get a chance to become part of the context and identify where I can apply things I’ve learned elsewhere to their context.
If you’re interested in having me work with one of your teams to help your internal product efforts, reply to this email and let’s talk.
In the meantime, here are some past resources that may help you get a better understanding of your context.
Why context matters to product people
The term best practice is frequently used to describe a process, technique, or practice that was successful for one team, organization or industry and are copied by others who believe if it worked for them, it will work for us.
Unfortunately, a practice that works great in one context may not work as well in a different context or may be entirely inappropriate. There are no best practices, only appropriate practices.
You can avoid the lure of best practices when you understand the conditions under which a practice is effective and determine if your situation has similar characteristics.
In other words, understand your context to understand the appropriate practices.
The context diagram is a model that shows how your product interacts with outside people, organizations, and/or systems. The context diagram helps you to identify the interfaces you need to account for, helps you to identify scope, identify potential stakeholders, and build a better understanding of the context in which you are working.
Context Leadership Model
The Context Leadership Model, created by Todd Little, was introduced in Stand Back and Deliver as a tool for determining the appropriate leadership style given a product’s uncertainty and complexity. The Context Leadership Model can also be used to understand the risks inherent in a product and determine how to approach analysis and documentation in a way that will address those risks. Todd chose to represent each quadrant with an animal whose characteristics mirror those of the products that fit into that quadrant.
How to Consider Context When Learning From Others
So how do you go about learning from others while factoring in the differences that context brings about? Here are five steps I’ve found help me consider context when trying to learn from others.
- Decide where you need help
- Understand your own context
- Find out what other people have tried
- Find out why it works in their context
- Figure out how to make it work in your situation