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Book Review: Escaping the Build Trap

August 23, 2021

Cover: Escaping the Build TrapAs organizations become more customer obsessed or user centered, we are seeing greater specialization in the delivery of user experiences. We are also experiencing significant changes in how organizations are delivering user experiences. A role that has recently risen in importance and shares some overlap with User Experience is that of Product Management. Specialization and modern forms of project management are encouraging these changes.

Rather than following the traditional waterfall process of software-project management, more and teams are adopting agile methods of software development. For organizations who may still be at an early stage in their UX maturity and user-centered thinking, it is still quite common to have a single UX professional working with a standing team of generalist developers who divide their time across multiple projects. However, as agile methods have become more common and in today’s world of scrum teams and agile sprints, it has become necessary to consider more specialized roles.

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What Is the Build Trap?

Early in her book Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value, Melissa Perri defines the build trap, which describes the dysfunction that we see in many organizations and contributes to poor user experiences. Essentially, organizations get caught in the build trap when they prioritize outputs over outcomes. These organizations value activity over quality. This phenomenon leads to the production of wasteful features that nobody wants and products that deliver little to no value.

I’ve seen this myself in organizations who encourage their employees to establish goals for themselves, against which the organization evaluates them annually. While goals are a good thing, when people define product-development goals that do not align with the organization’s strategy, this leads to waste and distracts other colleagues from more valuable activities.

As an example, I recall a time when an employee in another part of the organization had launched a blog to promote industrial equipment. As part of the governance team who would have to approve the project, I had several questions: What were the key performance indicators (KPIs)? What was the expected outcome? In the organization, other blogs had seen extremely low user engagement. What would be different about this blog? Finally, we knew that our customers had clearly identified difficulty finding product information as a key source of frustration. How would adding a new blog site with marketing content improve the customer experience?

“But this is my goal for the year! I have to get it done!” said this employee. “I know it’s the week before Thanksgiving, but can’t you just approve it? My boss, the VP of … is going to be upset if this doesn’t launch. This would tank my performance review, and it would all be your fault!”

So it goes with all organizations that go through the motions of setting goals without actually considering the value they would deliver to the customer. Often, teams produce customer-facing user experiences with no real consideration of value exchange. These projects deliver no value and distract coworkers from supporting more valuable user experiences. Plus, the organization bears the costs of developing and maintaining products that they’ve created just for the sake of creating something—anything.

Perri clarifies Product Management’s role by advocating for a strategy that focuses more on outcomes than output. Too often in corporate cultures, we value outputs rather than actual results that deliver real value—not only to shareholders, but to customers. In the context of Escaping the Build Trap, a product is essentially any user experience that a customer would pay for—whether a physical product, virtual product, or service.

What Is Product Management?

Looking at its face value, Product Management might seem to some to be User Experience with a different name. After all, many senior UX professionals find themselves concerned with the strategic alignment of features, functionality, and, depending on the size of the organization, products. Fundamentally, Product Management is about setting the conditions for successful value exchange between an organization and their customers.

Escaping the Build Trap discusses Product Management not just as a role but as a strategic activity for organizations. Perri describes product-led organizations—a term that causes me some discomfort. While this may be my personal bias, my own experience makes me cringe at the term. I can imagine engineers who are enamored of their product, without understanding the product’s market strategy or user needs.

One important note of clarification is that a product manager is not the same thing as a project manager. A project has a defined beginning, middle, and end, while a product is hopefully much more durable.

Perri analyzes Product Management in terms of career paths as well as team structures, identifying key success factors for each. As an individual contributor, a product manager could have a variety of job descriptions, including project manager, product visionary, or the CEO of a product. Perri evaluates these and other job descriptions, pointing out their significant shortcomings.

For many product managers, a critical consideration is their need to rely on influence and soft skills to achieve business goals. Only in larger organizations—where there might be a VP of Product or Chief Product Officer—would this person have people-management responsibilities. Many organizations lack a talent pipeline through which to build a solid Product Management team or organization. Perri advocates strongly for the intentional management of nascent Product Management talent within organizations and recommends pairing early-stage talent with established Product Management professionals.

Perri describes the career path for would-be product managers largely on the basis of their seniority and scope of responsibility. This is a somewhat prescriptive approach and might not be applicable to all organizations.

Encouraging Good Outcomes

Perri identifies ways of encouraging good outcomes that are based on the structure of an agile team. While some organizations organize teams around a particular feature or capability—for example, logging in—this typically creates suboptimal outcomes. For example, when a team is working on a well-established, mature feature, scrum masters might be tempted to find make-work to keep their developers’ backlogs full. As a consequence, what isn’t broken could end up getting fixed.

Instead, Perri recommends organizing teams based on value streams or an organization’s goals. Thus, a team could work across multiple technical features to effect the achievement of a strategic goal—for example, to increase conversions or reduce the number of support tickets users open. This approach minimizes wasted effort and increases the team’s focus on outcomes—on creating value. An excellent example of how this approach generates velocity and value is Perri’s description of Pandora, a company with a few dozen disciplined developers who built a subscription base of 40 million users and achieved a valuation of $4 billion.

Book Specifications

Title: Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value

Author: Melissa Perri

Formats: Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Publisher: O’Reilly Media

Published: November 29, 2018

Pages: 200

ISBN-10: 149197379X

ISBN-13: 978-1491973790

Conclusion

Escaping the Build Trap provides one perspective on Product Management. In her book, Melissa Perri relates some excellent anecdotes that support her advice on how to execute Product Management well. However, the book seems a bit repetitive at times, with several examples admonishing the reader not to get caught up in simply fulfilling an agile backlog or focusing on individual features as opposed to focusing on the overall user experience. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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