Product Management is like a Fractal

Product Management is like a fractal. Self-similar and repeating at every scale.

What is a Fractal?

Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” This idea of the same shapes or patterns appearing at every scale or zoom level reflects the fractal nature of Product Management.

Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician demonstrated the concept of fractals by taking a map of the UK and measuring the length of the coastline. With a coarse measuring tool, the length of the coastline will just be an approximation. There will be details that are missed which adds a little bit more length to the measurement. If we use a more detailed map, or a big satellite photo and more carefully measure the length of the coastline, the length will always be longer because we are measuring it in more detail. If we were to walk the length of the coastline and measure the distance covered, it will have more details and be even more accurate. The length measured will be longer again. We can keep going to the physical limits of our measuring devices, measuring the jagged sand grains in every pebble and rock that makes up the coastline and again we will get a larger number.

This is a good analogy for Product Management. As we spend more time learning about our customers and we spend more time examining solutions, we inevitably obtain more detail and become more knowledgeable at making better decisions.

From High Level to Finer Detail

Product Managers tend to walk out of any ideation or brainstorming session with big ideas. We are tasked with obtaining funding for that big idea. The big idea gets a business case that describes a worthwhile problem to solve and estimates the benefits and the costs of solving it. The resulting investment opportunity is usually sized in big round numbers because at this stage it is just an approximation.

To build something valuable we need more detail, ideally starting with information about the individual customer. The overall business opportunity doesn’t need to change but as you investigate how to deliver a solution, the level of detail required to consider increases. Just like the measured length of the UK coastline gets longer with finer measurements, this also means that the effort (and associated cost) required to accurately measure the customer’s needs and identify a solution also increases.

But in business we ignore this scale problem. We jump straight into pricing a solution design at the highest and broadest level of scale. This is akin to having a conversation with a customer from a satellite photo and believing that you will truly understand how to help them.

The Infinite Snowflake

Another example that illustrates the increase in cost within a fixed scope is the beautiful Koch Snow Flake that performs the magic trick of capturing an infinite length in a finite space….

2000px-KochFlake.svgIt starts with a simple equilateral triangle. Let’s say that each side has a length of 1 unit, so the total length of the sides is 3.

Now add a smaller triangle to each side where the length is 1/3 of the length of the side it is being added to in this case it will be 1/3 per side.

We now have a star shape with 12 surfaces, each with a length of 1/3 to make a total perimeter length of 12 x 1/3 = 4.

So here is the really cool thing about this process, the more you do it the longer the perimeter gets but the space it fills never increases. In fact, after just 51 iterations of the process above the perimeter length increases to over 5 MILLION units. This process can go on infinitely and as it does the length of the perimeter also increases to infinity. (Yes, that was the sound of your mind blowing….)

Budget Blowout or The Cost of Seeing the Details

Fractals are beautiful and are interesting mathematical objects but how does this align with the world of Product Management?

Many of us have had an experience that starts with clearly defined scope and budget for a product delivery project that inevitably ends up expanding beyond the originally estimated costs. When the original budget gets blown, poor project management or scope creep often gets the blame.

The reality is that as the original business case is turned into more detailed descriptions of the customer and business needs, more details are exposed. As these details are exposed, additional costs surface because the original estimate did not consider the appropriate level of detail that was required to effectively describe the customer experience and secondly, to create an applicable solution.

It is important to note that the original idea from the business case didn’t increase in scope, but the act of zooming in to a level that described a working solution immediately increased the resources required in the same way that more detailed measurement of the Koch Snowflake gets longer with every increase in detail.

How do we address this problem?

Review the Business Case when more details are exposed.

We need to recognise that there is a problem with our current belief that an initial business case can provide a complete budget for an entire product build process. A business case lacks the level of detail to deliver an actual solution and as a result there are unavoidable costs that have not yet been uncovered.

In the same way that it seems counter intuitive to believe that an infinite length can be contained in a finite space, it is easy for infinite costs to be hidden in a business case of fixed scope. In real world projects we won’t hit infinite values, but we will run out of time and money. It is very important to note that this is not scope creep or “gold plating”. It is just that nature of dropping from a less detailed view to a more detailed view.

To address this the Brainmates Framework uses a 2 step business casing process to firstly evaluate the high level opportunity (Draft Business Case), then reviews the business case again when further details (requirements, user stories, solution designs) have been generated and cost estimates have been applied (Baseline Business Case).

Focus on the most valuable customers first

To mitigate the problem of projects expanding beyond their business case budget the product needs to focus on the most valuable customers first. This is where the level of detail needs to switch from an “overall market description” to a “Specific Target Market” level to “the experience of a real person”. Personas are a superb tool for stepping through specific, real world scenarios that assist in mapping out the Personas current and future desired state experiences. Every time there is an increase in the level of detail being described there must also be ruthless prioritisation and focus.

Stay focused on one customer problem at a time

Identify one part of the Persona’s experience to focus on at a time. You can’t describe everything when you increase the scale so it is important to stay focused on the right customer and stick with it until you can create sufficient value or pivot to another opportunity. To create value in the market it is better to deliver something of smaller value earlier, instead of waiting until everything is done.

In many respects this is the true essence of an Agile or Lean approach. Understand a customer (zoom in). Test that there is a problem to solve. If there is, solve that part of the overall problem quickly. Don’t attempt to solve every problem on the curve until the first one is solved. This is the essence of an MVP and lean experiments. Zoom back out and look for another area of the curve to work on.

Repeat, iterate.

But don’t get lost in the infinite snowflake.