How do I approach products? and, What the h*** does Agile have to do with diving?
How do I approach product creation? and, How the h*** does Agile relate to deep-sea diving?
Earlier Today, while I was wrapping up the last laps in the pool mission of the day, my leg cramped up. Fortunately I know enough, so I relentlessly kept going in spite of and whilst fixing it reaching my preset-and-raised goal. Because you see, ever since I can remember my love for the sea has been just as immense, and moreover when I learned about Jacques Cousteau and his TV documentaries and so as a kid I learned about what he did. I devoured every book and video of his I could find. That is how I found out about what I wanted to do at some point in my life for sure: deep sea diving, create stuff and hopefully something related to science. I was 10, Mind you.
Life, family, and what not kept me from making a living for the sea, and it has been well over 20 years since I took my last breath from a bottle (the big metal tank-ones filled with air, just in case you were wondering🙃). Anyway, both of which I am now perfectly Ok with everything regarding that, but mostly a bit far from the point, which I shall get into in a minute. Close enough to the same 20 years that have gone by with me successfully creating stuff, and sure, a few times that not so much; … To make the perfect omelet, right?
Anyway, for some or other reason, I’ve had the chance and ability to avoid the all-limiting cognitive biases, by approaching my products the same way I used to approach deep-sea diving.
How’s that, you ask?
Well, Here’s how a deep-sea diving excursion works:
First: the Training:
I took a year’s worth of tough, just a step shy of military, non-resort-type of training where I learned everything I needed to know regarding decompression tables, health, even death risks, and a bunch of other stuff, well enough for heavy recreational diving only.
Second: discovery, planning and setup:
Oh, the discovery and planning stage: dreaded by some, most fun for others…
One must do, as in pretty much any new venture, set some kind of expectations, do some research as to what might there be out there, and start taking decisions. Some may be easy, but some others may get stuck as a chilly-powdered lollypop. Within some type of pre-established time frame, the decisions should start falling into a checklist of sorts: starting from the 5W’s, the trip, lodging, the so-very-important local guide and financials, the money, the all-important budget…. Everything, Up to a point, that is. You may include in your plan some sharks, or turtles, but unless you go to a specific sanctuary, it is rather just a hope. A nice-to-have goal, if you will.
Then, the Setup: One must find the gear, perhaps in the back of a dusty closet, or perhaps at the front and center of your entryway closet, like mine used to be. And if anything is missing or damaged like it happens more often than we mind remembering, we must find how and when could it be replaced; -I never owned a tank nor weighs because it is simply a drag edging on nonsense to own, moreover if you live up in the mountains like I do… –
So here is where we find the second similarity, the first one is evidently the training, and just like the discovery and planning stages: Though there are many items in our checklist and tool belts, there are also so many unknowns, as for any type of adventure, even for the most seasoned ones… In diving, we can never know where exactly will the diving spot be, much less what will we find under the water, which weather conditions, which as many things along the ocean floor, they tend to shift quite enough… and well, weather forecasters do make mistakes, you know… Anyway, we divers hold at least a couple of meetings and thorough planning sessions well before we see or touch the water, that includes the standard agreement on the language and signs and alarms we must use to communicate amongst ourselves under water. The last one usually is with the whole team of recent assembly, just before we go in. Exactly as it happens when you gather your product team, we come to the same type of agreements, definitions of done, etc.
We drive, or fly or whatever to get to a big-enough body of water, reach out to the local guide, meet the rest of the guys, your team-mates if you will, with whom we will be sharing the dive with, and exactly like product teams, this one will also be multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural, and brand new to know well in just a very small window of time. Then we must all collect and check all our gear: air-tank levels, air flow, any unintended and very unneeded leaks, and get everything and ourselves to the boat or pier or whatever is the final-before hitting the water spot, and we have a final-final review of the diving-plan, final-final check of the gear, and in we go… I bet you can now spot more similarities… Just in case: everything up to now it matches pretty closely to the Discovery Phase and Set-up phases, because, just as in product development: we haven’t even touched the steel bars, or the code, or the water. We just gathered the aforementioned needed stuff, the expert who has the map and knowledge as to where he wants to take us… Even with his assistance, it is up to each person to take care of oneself and the rest of the team just as well, because unlike coding, underwater, one tiny mistake may mean life or death… well, there is product death for sure…
Like manufacturing or coding, when you hit the water, let’s say you went in with the classic back-drop, even for a seasoned diver, it is quite easy and common to lose your bearings. And once you get past 5m(~15ft) down, if you are diving down let’s say, more than 20m (~60ft), you cannot see the ground underneath you, all you see is blue, clearer or darker, but all the way, 360° sphere of blue… Good thing you do have all your training, knowledge, the guide, your team mates, your trusted gear, a healthy dose of instinct, and a plan with you, so you just dig steadily deeper into the water, guided by a very light, easy to miss sensation of gravity… Until you see the ground beneath, hoping it is a bursting-with-life reef. It is the most glorious sensation..!
Also like product building, it is quite easy to lose your bearings, lose sight of the planned target, the need to change direction, and the temptation of going in just too deep that you may get lost, or worse. You cruise by, sometimes pulled by a gentle but overwhelmingly strong ocean jet stream… but you must keep onto your planned goal, which is to go onto and over the reef wall. So, with a little help from the jet stream which in this case it ran parallel to the reef wall, you must paddle your fins to cross it… so you may make it, Not by fighting it, but by using its own diagonal thrust. Very much so like product creation: you must listen to the environment, to what’s going on around you, your industry, and go with the flow and available thrusts onto your target, without fighting it, because at the end of the day, there is absolutely No chance you hit the same exact spot twice, ever. Even if you dive in the same GPS marked spot daily for years. That is, unless you are on a specific building or archeological site. and so it is exactly the same as in product: unless it is over fixing something old, it becomes likely Never repeatable. So it becomes, falls into some kind of awesome ‘uncharted waters’, of sorts… every time. How awesome can that be!
Over the reef’s wall, some people tend to panic, simply because of the magnitude of it all: You are seeing a giant black void under your tiny finned feet, and an infinite reef wall which runs for miles and miles across at your side, and the great blue all else around, including your ceiling which will undoubtedly hide your accustomed view of the sun, not to mention some probably huge aquatic animals just casually swimming by, which with some luck you may or may not even see… But believe me, they are there. This is also very true in product building.
And just as most product projects, in diving you are under a tight-or-death schedule. That is, depending on the depth: If you spend, just a minute or two more than you should, or just a meter more than you should, and the health-or-death risks go up exponentially. Panic is a killer in both business but a bit more literal when under water. In both, one must be aware, and always measure all reactions. Also, in both, environment, wildlife and team-mates may react in so many unexpected ways, ergo one must react both strongly but measurably enough to not endanger yourself and even probably save another life. And planning, in diving just as in Agile starts with high-level only, a vision and a goal, but you must go iteratively adjusting everything else just as you go in deeper. In both you also have an iron triangle: In diving is depth, time and air consumption. In project management its resources, time and scope. Pretty similar, don’t you think?
So, there comes a specific time when you must exit, very slowly, or your lungs and/or arteries would certainly explode. Seriously. Luckily the local team always leaves at least one guy, or two on the boat, plus sometimes non-diving tourists or family, that follows you and your team’s bubbles from above… Sometimes, depending on each personal training level, the tour may include up to 3 or 4 dives per day. There’s a predetermined sequence that depends on the depth-time ratio between dives, and it must be carefully planned from the beginning, or your lungs… you get the picture. Anyway, somehow reminds me of the Product Backlog, especially with multi-product/feature builds, which of course just by the same measure, and by applying some rules or adapting to unforeseen circumstances, it can and will likely change. I mean, Agile’s manifesto #4, right?
One of those 4-dive-days while on the second round of training sessions, my team and I knew the coach had some plan hidden under his sleeve, but little did we know what. I was just passed out on top of a boat’s bench, tired, famished, feeling the waves under the boat just savoring the soon-to-return to camp, when he bursts suddenly and yells out: “The boat is on fire! let’s meet up over on that island!…” It was a drill for which we had all trained for, but still … The Island… It was a hard-to-see small patch of sand just big enough to glimmer a tiny mirage under the western Caribbean late afternoon hot sun… When we arrived after a 2k or so swim dodging spiked rocks and sea urchins, he tells us: “Great! We’re all here. See you tomorrow. Bye!”
Yes, exactly, so it was with whatever we gathered when we slammed our backs into the water, it was only with what we had to spend the night, nothing more: A couple of bottles of water, a very short hook-and-thread, a few matches, and that was pretty much it. We gathered driftwood, built and lit a fire, caught and cooked a handful of small fishes, and slept dodging the strong wind on one side, and the crab bites on the other, and let me not forget the hypothermia and sickness ergo the taking care of one of the ladies throughout the windy and chilly night, the 9 of us… When the crew took us back to camp next morning, the breakfast was just bad that I had rather chosen some fish over fire from the night before. Now, here’s where I recall that the Agile’s manifesto #1 and Scrum’s 3 pillars matchup quite nicely: Individuals & interactions over processes & tools; Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation. We inspected where we were and what we needed to do between the sound of the coaches alarm and the slamming into the water in under a second with whatever we knew we should likely gather. Transparently talk amongst the team to assign ourselves chores, and not to mention the chatting/mapping of unseen though however unlikely they may be, but still present-enough catastrophic events or circumstances. And we adapted and solved everything we needed, at least for a single “survival” drill night, as it so happens for whatever cramps, circumstances, challenges and resources life, the market, Pestle‘s*, or in this case the coach and the island threw at us.
By the way, can you imagine doing any of this, with a tropical storm on top? inside a water-filled cave? or while an earthquake strikes while you are deep underwater? or under the cover of night?… Whole other ball games, for sure. believe me, I know. Been in and done them all. But those are whole other stories for another time.
Fourth, The Closing:
Exactly like the product’s life-cycle, the deep-sea diving journey stops, not whenever you are back on land, but rather when you are back home. Because you see, just few people outside the diving community know that the health risks truly end on average up to 48 hours that start just after your last minute under more than 2m(°6ft) of water.
And don’t let me forget the very important people that accompanied but stayed on the boat, back at camp or back at home, because you see, without them listening to our stories, well, the flavor is simply not even close to the same. So hopefully we are able to “sell”, um, keep them all engaged enough to listen up everything and hopefully “buy”, or in this case, rather just enjoy our stories, and perhaps they may even share them. Which I hope you did with mine.
I had some amazing adventures back on and under the ocean for sure, but just as well as a well seasoned Senior Product Manager, so the point of the whole story is: I approach Every single product build exactly the same way, I relentlessly pursue the mission completion with the Agile framework, its Manifesto, principles and practices in my toolbelt, and in doing so I ensure to make the ride thoroughly enjoyable and successful for everybody, fixing all types of cramps as we move along, at least most of the time😊, because we all know, in product, “cramps” are kind of the smallest of the mostly unavoidable glitches, blockers and whatnots.
So, I deeply believe that because of all this wide array of tools and experiences that I have been able to see beyond most cognitive bias, I have thrived on uncertainty, and taking advantage of the edge effect among many other things. But this are also some of the reasons why I have been able to produce/lead/solve for over 100 successful products and my up to 4th degree client-and-user chains, in over 8 industries, including 4 in manufacturing, music, 3 within digital, and counting.
And I believe it is also simply because I have been trained my whole life and more than a few dozen (80+) times under, up to 52m(~155ft) of oceanic water and sometimes also at night, for my life’s worth and passion: creating awesome products to help solve people’s problems and situations, wherever and whatever those may be.
So now you see how and why I always approach any and every product build like an all new under-water adventure.
PS: Here’s what my last manager has to say about my Product Management work.
PS2: The webpage where this page is anchored is within the same as my Portfolio, where you can find a list and description of some of my success cases. – And, What a better way to show a sample of what I’ve done by attaching my personal story/portfolio page onto a webpage I built by myself, Right 😉?
*Subtle reference to the Pestle analysis elements.
*4th degree client-and-user chains I have worked for: B2B2B2C.