You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re all doing what we can
–Revolution, The Beatles
Sometimes, it’s not about solutions, plans, contributions, or the effort you yourself put in. Sometimes, in order to create and ship great products, well, you know, you need to have a set of guiding principles that clearly outline the agreed-upon way for making decisions and getting things done. Effective product teams regularly negotiate amongst themselves to resolve disputes, but sometimes the issues are simply too complex; requiring executive-level input or perhaps impacting other teams within the organization.
In cases like these, having a set of product bylaws, a team charter, or other set of governing rules for your product team can help–a Product Constitution, if you will.
In This Article:
What is a Product Constitution?
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You’d better free your mind instead
–Revolution, The Beatles
A product constitution is one way to “free your mind” from the constraints of the institution so your product team can focus on improving, innovating, and growing your product without getting caught up in the organizational and political bottlenecks that often arise when neither process or precedent are present.
Similar in nature to a team charter or set of bylaws, a product constitution is a set of guiding principles and governing rules for a product portfolio leadership team (or its equivalent) and by extension sets the rules for how product decisions are made. At the simplest level, a product constitution is intended to set up a clearly understood, systematized approach to support your needs as a product team; it should define key objectives and motivations, identify key stakeholders and decisionmakers, and be used as a means to navigate and prioritize across your organization…which brings me to another important point: a constitution should be foundational; meaning it is shared and understood across your organization and across teams (and products).
Product constitutions can be used to support a product portfolio planning process, or may be used to guide senior level product leadership teams. Done well, a product constitution ensures that your organization’s approach to building great products will outlive any single employee. It may even survive the guy with the red swingline stapler.
A well-crafted constitution will stand the test of time and provide needed guidance when resolving disputes. Politics and product aside, high profile incidents within FIFA, the NFL and the NBA were all cleanly resolved (or not) based in large part on the strength (or not) of their constitutions.
Why Create a Product Constitution?
It’s never too late to develop a product constitution. Do you need a constitution? Of course not. England, for example, has been getting by quite nicely for a long time without a codified constitution. Before reading this article, you’d probably never considered having one for your product organization. Even without one, life still goes on, products still get built, the world still revolves.
Put one in place, though, and your professional life will improve as will the process of building your products. It will not, however, have any impact on the planet’s rotation.
1. Guiding Principles Reduce Friction
One of the more compelling reasons for laying out guiding principles is that, when well thought out, they can actually speed up the creation of great products and reduce friction and chaos. That’s right, good rules can reduce friction.
For your consideration:
- Imagine a parking lot with lines painted on the ground indicating where to park, clearly outlining the spaces. Everyone entering that lot knows what is a legal space, parks their car accordingly, and life works smoothly. Now, imagine for some reason, you can no longer see the lines. Maybe it snowed, or the lines faded or they are being repainted. It is suddenly unclear where to park, so people park everywhere. Left to their own devices, they leave more room between the cars. Suddenly, what was an efficient parking lot becomes more chaotic, just because the lines are obscured. A similar example: imagine driving on a wide road with no lines on the pavement. Will you drive as fast? And if there is oncoming traffic, will you hew to the middle of the road?
- A simple study by the American Society of Landscape Architects looked at the impact of having a fence around a playground on the behavior of preschool children: “The overwhelming conclusion was that with a given limitation, children felt safer to explore a playground. Without a fence, the children were not able to see a given boundary or limit and thus were more reluctant to leave the caregiver. With a boundary, in this case the fence, the children felt at ease to explore the space. They were able to separate from the caregiver and continue to develop in their sense of self while still recognizing that they were in a safe environment within the limits of the fence.”
There is an argument to be made that just-enough laws – painting the lines, defining the boundary – provide guidance which allows you to experiment and work with less doubt and uncertainty.
2. Evolution vs. Purposeful Creation
Take the time to craft an intentional approach to creating great products. Do it on purpose. Please. Thank you. Next topic.
3. The Myth of the Visionary Leader as Hero
You’re not Steve Jobs. You might aspire to be, you might act like you are, but you’re not. There are only a few rare individuals who have the blend of talents he did. He really was the ultimate product manager. For the rest of us, we need to be able to lead and influence. A Product Constitution can establish the decision making framework and makes the rules of the road clear for everyone to see and follow (if they so choose).
4. Trust, Alignment, Empowerment (and other old-world, new-age words)
Ultimately, one very effective way to get stuff done is to ensure everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing, understands their role within the organization and is working within the same cohesive approach and towards the same vision.
A Product Constitution is an artifact which fosters trust, alignment, empowerment, commitment, and accountability. It leads to greater transparency since everyone is playing by the same WRITTEN rules. It’s been said (by me, right now) that in many cases the difference between a good product manager and a great one is that the great one understands the unwritten rules of the game. A Product Constitution levels the playing field by articulating some of those previously unwritten rules and sets the stage for even good product managers to soar. Well, except for this guy and this company. (They’re hiring.)
Are You Ready for a Constitution?
A Product Constitution is not right for all organizations. How can you assess if putting one in place will actually be a net positive? Here’s one way to look at it: consider where your organization falls within each of these three dimensions:
Transparency is the quality of being open and understandable, it is “characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices.” (Source.) An organization with low or no transparency in its decision making processes is more susceptible to secret backroom deals, abuses of power, and corruption.
A Product Constitution, by its very nature, is intended to shed light on how the system works and to lay bare the mechanisms for resolving conflicts and making decisions. Organizations which either are, or aspire to be, highly transparent in their inner workings would benefit the most from a Product Constitution.
How is power distributed in your organization? Is decision-making control limited to a few individuals (centralized) or is there a level of empowerment that permeates the organization (decentralized)?
Transparency Versus Control
Now, let’s consider the implications on the type of leadership most likely to occur based on the levels of Transparency and Control. (This framework is grossly simplified for illustration purposes.)
|Decentralized Control||Centralized Control|
|High Transparency||Direct Democracy or Crowdsourcing||Representative Democracy|
- — Direct Democracy (or Crowdsourcing): One person, one vote. Majority rules.
- — Representative Democracy: Individuals agree to allow a few people to serve as their representatives and vote / decide on their behalf. There is an expectation that the representatives will have their constituents’ best interests at heart, and will vote / decide accordingly. [Insert ironic or snide remark of your choice here.]
- — Anarchy: No rule of law.
- — Dictatorship: One person wields absolute power with few, if any, limitations.
Product Constitutions are most applicable to transparent organizations, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of Control. If you’re working for a dictator or are surrounded by anarchy, don’t spend time crafting a Product Constitution. Work on your resume instead.
Overlaying this entire framework is the concept of Accountability. In most organizations, everyone is accountable to someone else, be it a boss, CEO, Board of Directors, Shareholders, Customers, etc. That’s the theory, at least, but high levels of accountability do not always play out in practice. Putting a Product Constitution in place is one way to institutionalize accountability around product development and decision making. By explicitly stating how decisions are made, and by whom, you have put in place a policy to enforce transparency. Secret deals may still happen, and if they do, you’ll have an agreed-upon policy to use to expose them.
Final Notes and Asides
- Clearly, the above model is very simple to illustrate one way to assess whether your organization could benefit from a Product Constitution. You can stretch the model, make it more complex, sophisticated or granular. The basic idea remains the same: a Product Constitution is supposed to improve transparency, and should be used within organizations that either are, or aspire to be, highly transparent.
- Transparency International tracks corruption around the world. What might a heat map like this look like for departments within your company? Other companies in your industry? What criteria might you use to assess those organizations?
- Admit it. As a Product Manager, there are times you’ve wished you could just be a dictator and simply make decisions without having to go through the pain of justifying them, convincing others that this is the right choice, and navigating the possible minefield of objections just to get your job done. Democracy is messy.
- Are there cases when corruption or bribery might be a good thing within a product development organization? How might it improve the process of creating a product that customers want to buy?
A product constitution, or set of guiding principles for your team and organization to go by can benefit your product and organization when issues arise that are too complex for a single team to resolve, require executive level input, or impact other teams or parts of the organization. A Product Constitution reduces decision-making friction and increases organizational transparency and accountability by clearly defining key objectives and motivations, stakeholders, issue resolution processes, and escalation paths to resolve conflicts.