What’s The Build Trap & What Does It Mean For Product Managers?


On this episode of Build, Maggie sits down with Melissa Perri, product management and UX expert and author of Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real ValueMaggie and Melissa dive deep and explore what the build trap is and what it means for product managers, plus how product management teams can get out of the build trap and drive real business value – not feature factories. Want to hear Melissa’s two best pieces of advice for PMs? Listen to the full episode.

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Full Transcript

Maggie Crowley: Welcome to Build. Today I’m really excited because I have all-star product person, Melissa Perry joining me. She’s the founder and CEO of Products Labs. She was a speaker, consultant and a teacher in all things product. She is also the author of the book Escaping the Build Trap, How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value, which I am currently reading and I’m really excited to chat with you about, so Melissa welcome.

Melissa Perri: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Maggie: Yeah, I’m really excited to dig into it because I think what I’m really interested in is the topic that you cover in your book is that you go beyond just, you shouldn’t be a feature factory, but instead you talk about product in the context of the company that you’re in. Which I think is super fascinating. Before we get in, then if you could just give us an overview of what is the build trap.

Melissa: Yeah. So the build trap is this place where organizations get stuck and focused on really how much are they shipping and not what do those features actually produce. What is the value for the customers and the business that we’re actually driving? So, what we do is we start prioritizing and budgeting and saying like, “okay, we’re going to build this, this and this this year.” And we never really go back after we ship it to look at what did that produce. Did it result in more revenue? Do we have happier customers? Are people staying with us more? We’re not tying back the things that we’re actually doing at the team level to what the organization wants to achieve.

Maggie: How do we people get into that? Because I would imagine that most of us wouldn’t start out just singing, we’re going to keep shipping features and that’s going to be the best way to do this.

Melissa: Yeah, it really depends. Organizations, when they start off as small startups, they are really focused on value delivery because you can’t survive otherwise. You can’t make money if you’re not [inaudible 00:01:43] value to customers and you don’t have a lot of runway. So you’re uber focused on how can I make this better? How can I deliver value to my customers? How do I make sure that what they’re doing is really going to produce something, some kind of value for them, where they’re going, “oh, I’ll give you value in return to the business.”

Now as you scale though, and you get more money, you start to become, and organizations start, to become further away from their customers. So you might not be talking to them as much. You may have more runway. So you get basically this pile of things that you know you need to build and sometimes you just go into execution mode. “Oh, let me catch up and build all these things,” which is fine, but then you get stuck in that habit of, “okay, what’s the next thing we can build? What’s the next thing we can build?” And you forget to go back to your customers and really make sure that what you’ve built for them is producing what you want it to do. It’s making them happier. It’s making their lives better. It’s producing value for them.

So we just get stuck in that trap. And as organizations get really, really big into corporations, that’s where we have so much money and so much runway that if we’re not making the right moves, we’re not really seeing those results as a business immediately because we have a ton of runway. Revenues typically still rising. We’re still growing a little bit. We can’t really tell that everything that we’re doing at the team level is not producing what we want it to do at the top.

So, it’s never that anybody wants to start there and it’s that anybody thinks that they’re doing that either. It’s that they get into a habit and they get narrowly, [inaudible 00:00:03:08], it’s such a bad word. They start looking so much inward at what they’re doing as an organization. What’s going on in the four walls in the room and the building that you’re in? And they stopped looking at what are people doing outside of our office. How are customers actually using this? They stop staying in touch with them.

Maggie: And I would imagine that part of that is also, and I’ve seen this as we started to grow, we have more and more teams here at Drift and as we do that, you can get into a place where you own this feature or you work on this thing. So you’re constantly thinking, “okay, well what else can I do with this feature?” It becomes harder to step back and think: “What problem do we need to solve overall?” Because it might not have anything to do with that feature that you’ve been living and thinking about for so long.

Melissa: We start to really optimize locally. So we’re looking at how can I enhance this? How can I enhance that. Instead of really looking broadly across what are all the different things we’re doing. And I think that comes back as well to strategy and how we think about it as a company. And when you’re really small, you don’t need a strategic framework because you’re like, “Okay, what does my customer need? Build that.” You just get it out the door.

As you scale and you have more than four or five teams, how do you make sure that everybody’s aligned and going in the right direction? If every team is deciding exactly what to build for themselves with no direction from leadership or no overarching wrapper of value that we want to achieve, you could be building a bunch of great stuff that’s not really going to move the business.

So we need to put in… One way of getting out of the build trap is to put in the strategic framework as you scale, so that at the top, you’re really prioritizing what’s important for the business and you’re keeping the teams focused. And then the teams can look at that and say, “Okay, what can I do around my landscape of stuff to really hit those goals? Is there an opportunity for me to solve a problem? Should I be building a different feature? Should I be building a different product?” And they’re thinking strategically about how do they achieve those business goals and they’re all moving in the same direction.

Maggie: Which brings me to my next question, which is when you go in and you’re looking at a team, do you have a prescription that you have that you take to them to help them get out of this type of trap?

Melissa: It really depends on the organization. Some people just do things better than others. So we do like a lot of product assessments with organizations, and I always look at a couple things. So one is product strategy. Do you have a strategic framework like I was talking about? It doesn’t have to be [inaudible 00:05:23] minus, no. It just has to be good. Everybody has to be moving in the same direction. There has to be outcomes at the highest level for the business that are connected to what the teams are actually doing, how they’re talking to customers, how are we incorporating that feedback and is that forming our strategy? So how do you set strategy and how do you deploy is one thing I look at.

Two, is really do you have the right people in the right roles? So, do we have people who can make well informed decisions about where to go and how you’re working together at the leadership level? Do we have the right people on teams who are well equipped to make these decisions as well? Do we have the supporting functions around there like the data analysts that we need to actually get the data that we need?

The other piece is process. So do we have the right processes in place to really learn from our customers and incorporate that? Are we testing and learning? Are we going out and talking to users and getting their feedback and watching what they’re doing? Are we just jumping in and building everything. Also where do those ideas come from? At the highest level saying, “build this feature.” They should never be prescribing what features to build at those levels. That should be a team decision, but they should be pointing you in the right direction. So that’s where the strategy framework comes in. But a lot of times the process is not that.

And then the last two things we look at is product operations and then culture. So product operations is, are you well set up at scale to do these things? So do you have a cadence for revisiting your strategy and your road maps and making decisions about what to prioritize or what not to prioritize? Do you have the right data infrastructure to make decisions? Are you pulling it together? Do you have things like amplitude or anything that will help you with the data? Do you have a user research cadence going on where product managers can get out there and actually talk to customers? So processes, are they actually talking with customers. Product operations are they enabled to do that? Do they know [inaudible 00:07:10] contact is at scale?

So we look at all those things. We also look at how product management works with other parts of the organization. Are they enabling sales well? Are they working with product marketing? How did this look at?

And then the last thing is your culture. So, how are you incentivized to do the things you’re doing? I had a company once where I went into this assessment and the directors and VPs of products sat down with me and they went, “What happens every year is that we get to December and we look back at what our goals were actually set up for, and they’re always tied to shipping features at the beginning of the year. And if we did not do that, we’ll just build a bunch of random stuff that checks the box and ship it so that we all get our bonuses in March and take it down in January.” Well the last two months of the year, basically building stuff we don’t need because [inaudible 00:08:02] to your bonus and they’re like, “Exactly. And we know that’s wrong, but that’s how we’re rewarded.”

I look at those types of things too. I think culture plays a really big part of this and also how you incentivize people plays a really big part in organizations getting stuck in the build trap because they’re rewarding people for the wrong things.

Maggie: So then presumably what you do is you go through that assessment and then you pick maybe the one that’s the worst and you start there. Let’s say someone had all of these problems to some degree, what’s the one thing that you would just suggest everyone just jump in and start doing it differently today?

Melissa: So we usually work top down and bottom up and it’s in little pieces. If a purchase for many different standpoints. So it’s like over the years, the one thing I think I’ve seen that works the best is make sure that you have product managers who are capable of doing their jobs. You want a good product management organization, you need to make sure that you have good product leaders and you need to make sure that you have product managers who can learn from leaders. A lot of times very large organizations too that we work with. Smaller companies too have the same problem. Except, they have people in these leadership positions who were not typically product managers, and then they can’t really train or help the people who are new to it.

So they hire a lot of smart people, they don’t give them the training that they need to do their jobs and then they don’t really hire anybody they can actually learn from. So we always advise you to hire leaders that can help coach and train their teams and get good processes. To me that is the deciding factor on whether people were going to be successful or not. That one huge piece.

Maggie: Yeah, it’s interesting. I had a conversation with Marty Kagan from Silicon Valley Product Group the other day and he boiled it down and was saying that probably one of the biggest challenges that he’s seeing in the market is the lack of coaching of PMs by product leaders and how that’s such a gap for everyone. Which I thought was really interesting because I think so much of what I read as someone who’s a practitioner is how to do the function of product better, but you’re right. As I scale and turn into a product leader that this topic is so top of mind for me and the highest leverage thing I can do is probably making all the PMs I work with better.

Melissa: Exactly. And that’s what a product leader should be doing. There is a huge strategy component to it as well. But you have to be sure that your teams are well put to do their job, otherwise you can’t do your job as a leader. And to me that’s huge. I think Marty’s spot on. The problem is we don’t have a ton of product leaders, the amount of product leaders that are really, really solid product leaders.

And I spend most of my days these days interviewing product leaders for the companies that we work with. So, hiring tons of VPs and CPOs right now and there are not a ton of amazing people up market who’ve really, really done this before in a position where they can coach other people. Because they’re coming in from all different types of backgrounds and you’ll see a lot of VPs of product on the market who made a jump from being a business VP to a product VP and they never worked at the team levels. They can’t coach people on the team level.

I think that is a huge thing in the Market right now. We just don’t have a lot of people who have risen through the ranks of product management and are able to coach those teams. And the other piece is you see really good senior product managers and they’re having trouble making the leap into interfacing with executives, becoming chief product officers. Because now it’s a different skill set. It’s no longer about doing the work with the teams and the developers that you have been doing. It’s about becoming more strategic. That’s something that I think we have to get better at, allowing the product managers on the teams to flex that muscle and giving them more opportunity there, so they can make the job to get to the VP and CPO.

Maggie: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s interesting. I have a background in consulting and I also went to business school, and I think a lot of the time there’s the typical cliche of you don’t need an MBA, whatever. There’s all sorts of arguments on either side of that topic. But I think that experience has given me a background in strategy and that type of communication that I’ve been finding to be so much more important as I jumped to product leader. I didn’t know that that was what was going to be the case and what was going to help me. But now looking back, I’m so glad I had that time as a consultant where basically, your whole job is communicating with executives.

Melissa: Yeah, that’s a huge skill set and it’s so good that you have that experience because a lot of people don’t. They just don’t have experience working with executives, how to tailor their approach. How to read people as well. Having that [inaudible 00:12:14] is absolutely essential if you want to play at the executive field. We spend a lot of time trying to get people to the CPO level, that’s a mission of mine as well. That is the best VP of product or the best really solid product manager, and if they don’t flex that muscle of really being able to talk to executives, tailoring their approach, really know how to talk at their level as well. CEOs don’t typically care about agile and I see a lot of people go to them, “well you know because we’re doing agile, all these things are great,” and they’re like, “I don’t care.”

I had a CEO of one of the clients I was working with, and he called me. He was like, “if I hear agile one more time, I’m going to fire the whole company.” [inaudible 00:12:55] Because he’s asking them about if you’re building this stuff, what can we project sales to be? He cares about sales, he cares about revenue. He cares about increasing the margins and they just kept coming back to him and talking about agile and he was like, “I don’t care.” They knew that some of the agile stuff was going to produce those things, but they weren’t connecting the dots for him. And I think that’s absolutely [inaudible 00:13:15] if you want to be a product leader.

Maggie: Definitely. And so when you meet someone who has probably the raw talent or the right experience and you think that they’re going to be good at that role, how do you help them get better at that?

Melissa: We usually spend a lot of time like tailoring communications. I think the biggest thing I get from people who are new to being in a CPO role or a VP of product role or director of product even. I get a lot of people in that and they say, “I’m trying to present these ideas to my manager. He’s not really listening to me. I’m not getting really good feedback.” And then what we do is we break down their whole presentation and the story that they’re telling.

So we do a lot of work to one, empathize with the leadership team and what they care about, and then two, bring the work and the message that they want to do and fine tune it into something that will make them listen. So we spent a lot of time like translating what the team’s working on into something that executives will get behind. Because they don’t really care about the list of features that you’re shipping. They care about what those features are going to do. So that’s usually where we start. So we do a lot of work on like refining the way that they tell those stories to executives

Maggie: It’s interesting. I’ve talked about this in the podcast many times in the past that similar to the skills we were talking about earlier, but also the role that storytelling and being able to put a good narrative together, how important that’s become in product and how that’s turning into sort of a defining characteristic of a really good PM is someone who can take in all those inputs and then come back and tell that good story.

Melissa: I completely agree. It’s about really relating it to the goals that people care about. Storytelling is not just putting together a good pitch, it’s about tailoring the pitch for the right person. So if you a VP of product, what you’re going to be talking to the CEO about should be very, very different than what you talked to your teams about. You’ve got to know how to break it down for the teams and be able to activate them into going out and discovering and delivering the best product.

But then you have to be able to translate that back into CEO seat, which is, here’s what we’re doing and why it’s going to move this business forward. It’s all about your audience at that point.

Maggie: So one quick question on this before you move on because I actually have a question related to communication. But before we get out of being in the build trap, do you have an example of one or two top hurdles that you’ve seen teams run into when they try to make the move from pulling out of being featured focus to becoming more outcome focused? What are the big pitfalls that people fall into when they try to do this, trying to change?

Melissa: I think one, is making everything outcome focused. There’s two different sides of it. I’ve seen lately, it’s one, looking at only outcomes and never putting the outputs back to it. So I have a lot of companies who are like, “Oh we want to become like outcome oriented.” And I’m like, “That’s great.” And then what we’ll do is they’ll make a bunch of OPRs that are like increase revenue. And I’m like, “Okay, cool. What’s the hypothesis of what we’re going to test to increase revenue?” And they’re like, “No, no, no, we’re just going to increase revenue.” And I’m like, “Okay, but what are we going to build to do that?” And sometimes we get so hung up on the outcomes that we’re afraid to connect it back to the outputs. Like what are we actually going to build?

So you need both outcomes and outputs. But outcomes should be driving your outputs. You should be saying like, “I’m going to build this for these reasons and this is what I expected its result, and this is what I ship.” So that’s one thing I’ve seen. The other one is people getting into the trap of always testing and never actually acting the stuff that they have. So, when we teach experimentation and test and learn, a lot of people get into the cycle of always testing but never building. So you want to make sure that you’re always informing it to a point where you feel pretty confident that what you’re building is going to be the right thing to build. But then you got to go build it, then you got to break down and actually build the thing. And I see people get sucked into traps of just testing.

The last one that I’ve noticed more recently, when I started speaking about six or seven years ago, I was talking a lot about focusing on the customer as a product manager. And I firmly believe we should be doing that. But now what I’ve been seeing is that people focus so much on the customer, they forget about the business. So if you go into companies and you talk to the product managers, and I ask them, “Okay, great, these customers requested all these things, they want all these things built, what’s that going to do for the business? Why should you invest in that from a business perspective?”

They’re like, “Oh no, but it’s just what the customer wants.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but if that’s going to cost the business $3 million to build what the customer wants, is that worth it from a business standpoint? What’s [inaudible 00:17:34] for you. And they’re not connecting the two pieces. I think people swing either too far towards a business or too far towards the customer. And to me the art of getting out of the build trap and being a great product manager is being firmly in the middle where you can [inaudible 00:17:48] both sides. You saw the customer value produced business value.

Maggie: Yeah. That’s awesome. I really liked what you said about pairing outcomes with outputs because I’ve been struggling with this a little bit about, of course I want to be outcome focused. I want to make sure that teams have problems that they’re solving and we’re not handing down features and roadmaps and that kind of thing. But at the same time there’s definitely a question that you either get explicitly or you feel like you get from leadership at times, which is, what am I going to get for this? If I solve this problem, if you achieve that outcome, what does that mean? What does that look like? Especially if you have product focus founders or product focus leadership. How do you manage both of those expectations?

Melissa: I think that’s key, and to me that’s all about communicating what phase you’re in as well. So if you have outcomes that you’re trying to achieve but you’re not really sure how to achieve them yet. What we do with leadership is we explicitly tell them we’re in discovery phase and we know that these are the business outcomes we’re trying to achieve. These are the problems we’re exploring from a user standpoint. We don’t know enough yet, but next quarter I expect to come back to you with a product vision around or solution vision what we can test to actually achieve those outcomes.

And then the next phase you move into is, we’ve figured out that these problems are worth solving because they’re causing churn. We think that there’s an opportunity to increase revenue here with a different product line because it’s adjacent to us. We can repurpose what we have or you make the story about what solving those problems are going to do. And then you say, “We’re going to test these solutions to see if we can actually achieve those outcomes.”

And then you break those outcomes down into like a small enough timeframe where you can test and learn about it. And then you go back and you say, we believe that by building a solution we are going to achieve these types of business outcomes, so I think it’s a process. Yeah, I definitely have seen it with the leaders, especially product focus leaders who are like, “Okay, but what’s the product vision? What are you going to build here to actually get to those outcomes?” And I think it’s about getting what phase you’re in so that they know that you are thinking about that. You’re just not there yet. You just don’t have the data to solidly come back to them and say, “Yep, this is what I know we should be building. This is how we’re going to get it done.”

Maggie: That brings me to the last point that I highlighted from your book. I think this quote is amazing. You wrote, “The more leaders can understand where teams are, the more they will step back and let the teams execute. The more you try to hide your progress, the wider that knowledge gap becomes. Years will demand more information and will crack down on your freedom to explore. If you keep things transparent, you will have more freedom to become autonomous.” Which I think kind of gets at this whole thing that we’re talking about, which is the better and more appropriately you can communicate where you are each time and what the information is that you have, the better you’re going to be able to execute in general.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly. And I’ve seen a lot of teams that are scared to share roadmaps with the leadership team. They’re afraid of giving them status updates. That is exactly what I wrote, they hide it from them. And I’ve seen so many teams that do that. I had a CEO at a team with 400 scrum teams, literally 400 product managers and 400 scrum teams. He was going into Jira and counting story points because he just did not get the information he needed at the right level.

Nobody was bubbling it up for him. Nobody was saying, “Hey, we know that this is your vision and this is what you’re to achieve and these are the big initiatives we’re working on. Here’s the progress towards them.” Because everybody was trying to hide that information and they’re going to go get it no matter what.

You want to be in charge of that story and you want to be in front of that story so that they can understand it. And to me the more transparent teams are, and that doesn’t mean updating everybody every second of the day. That just means putting together a good story at the appropriate time, at the appropriate level for the person. Like you were talking about before, that’s absolutely key.

And then managers want that. Every leader that I’ve ever worked with from the C-Suite down in these organizations have told me, “I just want my team to come back to me and give input on what we’re doing. I want them to tell me if they think we’re doing the wrong thing, I want them to make decisions. I want them to tell me what we’re going to be doing in three months.

I want them to spend time really putting that narrative together and coming back to me with their advice based on data and research and everything on what we should be doing. Because I don’t have time to go do everybody’s work like that myself. So they want this, they’re craving this. And I’ve seen the product managers that do that really well, they do get the autonomy. People go, “Yes, they’re a good product manager.” They leave them alone. They let them go execute because they know they’re going to come back to them with progress.

Maggie: That’s a lesson I learned early on when I joined Drift was if you don’t go after that and communicate up and take ownership of those problems, someone’s going to fill your roadmap for you. And it’s not going to be probably the roadmap that it should be, and it’s not going to be the one that you want, and it’s not going to help you progress in your career because someone’s handing down things for you to do. For whatever reason, the way that that was phrased to me really stuck and honed in on the point that you have to be the one who’s suggesting those things and pulling that together if you want to be able to progress.

Melissa: Yeah, completely.

Maggie: Awesome. Well Melissa, this has been incredible. I just have two more questions for you. I want to know what are you reading or listening to that you’re recommending to people or that you think is helpful in the work that you’re doing today?

Melissa: So one book that I read and really recently, I listened to the audio book, it was great. It was called Never Split the Difference. It’s about negotiating, from a hostage negotiator in the FBI. And he talks about how do you negotiate to win. And I think [inaudible 00:23:01] a really good book because it’s not just about negotiating. It’s not like, “Hey, you give me 50 I’ll give you 40. it’s not about that.

He really gets into how to influence people into your decisions and explain to people why there’s value in it. And I think that’s very valuable. One, I love it as a consultant, it was very valuable for me. But even product managers. I made all my product managers read it and they go, “Oh, I can use this when I go back to management and present my opinions. And they’re telling me to build this.” And then it makes you really think about the other side and how to present your case and really talk about how to get things done.

Maggie: Oh yeah, that’s a good one. I’m going to add that to my list.

Melissa: I thought that was an excellent, excellent book. So highly recommend that. I just listened to Trillion Dollar Coach as well.

Maggie: Oh yeah, I just read that.

Melissa: Yeah. What’d you think?

Maggie: I was a little underwhelmed. I think only because people have been talking it up so much. This might be a really hot take, but I kind of felt like it was men learning that it was okay to have feelings in the workplace. I started thinking then, I couldn’t unthink it then. And that colored my whole understanding of the book.

Melissa: That may be true. So the reason I liked it is because it’s made for executives who probably don’t understand the value of product management. And I was like, “Oh.” So for me like did I get anything really out of it? No. But I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a great book because all the executives of every company is going to want to read this because they want to learn how to have a coach like Google’s. And then most of the book was about how he encouraged them to leave the product teams alone and listen to them and [inaudible 00:24:37] them, and I was like, “Oh good, I’m glad people are listening to this. I did agree with that piece too with the men and feelings.

Maggie: I also think I had a conversation with our CTO about it, and he made a good point that it really depends on the stage you’re at in your career and what kinds of decisions you’re making. And he was saying that a lot of it was really relevant for him. Where I feel like a book like Radical Candor is probably more relevant to where I am day-to-day than a book like Trillion Dollar Coach.

Melissa: Yeah, I think that’s great.

Maggie: Okay. The last one. So what are one or two pieces of advice that you want to give to every PM that you meet?

Melissa: Really figure out… What we talked about. Get your storytelling down, focus on communication. It’s really just the place where I see most PMs, especially new PMs fail, and experienced ones. It’s across the board, is communication skills are so important in this line of work. So, being able to tailor your message to the right person, putting that story together. Cohesively, just explaining your reasons and backing that up in a way that gets people to understand it and listen. I think that’s absolutely huge. So I always tell people to focus there.

And then I think the second one is really looking at things differently. So when we talk about what work does, as a product manager, we talk a lot about the tools that we do and I see people get over focused on the processes and the tools. “Let me do a percent, let me build 5,000 prototypes.”

I try to teach them, and I think senior senior product managers are much better at this and junior product managers. And that’s what makes them senior. But the difference between the two, is that a senior product manager can go, “Okay, this is the context and the situation that I’m in. Here’s the right tool that I should apply now to get to my next step.”

And I just see a lot of PMs who just don’t do that. They don’t consider the context. And they don’t look at, “Hey, I’ve got a million different tools in his toolbox. Let me figure out what’s the right one to use at the right time. So I would say, don’t focus so much on the process, focus on what is the outcome that you’re trying to achieve. What is the context that you’re in right now and what is the tool that is the best one that’s going to be best suited to get you there?

Maggie: Awesome. Melissa, this was incredible. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate you spending some time with us today.

Melissa: Yeah, thank you so much.