Creating Product Principles
Developing A Framework for Alignment and Decision Making
Creating Your Product Principles
Moving fast is difficult. Moving fast as teams grow is even more difficult. With a million decisions to make each day, how can you ensure everyone is making the right ones? A good vision and strategy will get you part of the way there, but what about the tiny tradeoffs that happen day-to-day?
By establishing principles and tenets for your teams and products, you can ensure everyone is aligned around the right priorities and the right frameworks, without having to discuss every decision.
But what are principles? And how do we create them? And why should we? Let’s explore these ideas.
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The Macintosh History
In his excellent biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson gives us the history leading up to the Macintosh.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak teamed up to create Apple in 1976. Their first product was the Apple I. The Apple I was a homebrew computer that was designed and hand-built by Wozniak.
The next Apple product was the Apple II. Jobs and Wozniak made the prototype in 1976 and it was first sold in 1977. It was a finished consumer device, unlike the Apple I, and launched Apple to new heights.
According to Isaacson:
“The Apple II took the company from Jobs’s garage to the pinnacle of a new industry. Its sales rose dramatically, from 2,500 units in 1977 to 210,000 in 1981.”
After the Apple II, though, Jobs was restless. He knew it wouldn’t be a success forever, and he also recognized that it would always be seen as “Wozniak’s masterpiece.” He hoped that the successor of the Apple II could be his masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the immediate successor to the Apple II, the Apple III, flopped. So Apple began working on the Lisa, a more modern version of the Apple II with a graphical user interface pioneered by Xerox. It was a major undertaking for Apple, and they invested nearly $50 million in the project.
Jobs, in his excitement for GUIs, tried to take over the daily management of the Lisa project. It upset most of the other managers at Apple. Jobs eventually was ousted from the Lisa group and not allowed any control of that project (which many viewed as the next big thing for Apple), so he took complete control of the Macintosh project, which had begun as a skunkworks product to develop a lower-cost machine.
Guiding Ideas for the Macintosh
Jobs shifted the focus of the Macintosh team to compete directly with the Lisa. He wanted a low-cost machine with a graphical user interface and an incredible design.
As part of his management of the Macintosh group, Jobs instilled many key ideas in the team to guide their decision-making on the product.
The quotes below come from Steve Jobs.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”
“So that’s our approach. Very simple, and we’re really shooting for Museum of Modern Art quality. The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”
Jobs continually emphasized for the Macintosh that everything needed to be simple. It became part of the ethos of the product, and ultimately Apple.
Jobs also wanted the Macintosh to be intuitive for anyone to use.
For example, he extolled the desktop metaphor he was creating for the Macintosh. “People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on the top is the most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.”
“As beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box”
“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
Jobs was influenced by his father in this regard, and I’ve always loved this idea (both as a woodworker and technologist).
“Each detail is essential”
As was characteristic of Jobs, he managed every detail of the product, including the packaging, much to the chagrin of many involved.
From Mike Markkula he had learned the importance of packaging and presentation. People do judge a book by its cover, so for the box of the Macintosh, Jobs chose a full-color design and kept trying to make it look better. “he got the guys to redo it fifty times,” recalled Alain Rossmann.
Jobs would continually tell his team that they would not compromise. Often we feel like compromises are part of the job, but that wasn’t how he viewed the development of the Macintosh.
Most technology teams made trade-offs. The Mac, on the other hand, would end up being as insanely great as Jobs and his acolytes could possibly make it.
“Better to miss than turn out the wrong thing”
Likewise, Jobs would tell his team that he would rather miss a date or deadline than ship the wrong thing. And he had significant money on the line. He had a $5,000 bet with the Lisa team he would ship the Macintosh first (he lost that bet and paid up). But it was more important to ship the right thing.
A different type of project manager, willing to make some trade-offs, might try to lock in the dates after which no changes could be made. Not Jobs. He displayed another maxim: It’s not done until it ships.
“Better to be a pirate than join the navy”
He wanted to instill a rebel spirit in his team, to have them behave like swashbucklers who were proud of their work but willing to commandeer from others. He meant, ‘Let’s have a renegade feeling to our group. We can move fast. We can get things done.’
What are Principles?
We can see above that Steve Jobs established a number of principles for his team working on the Macintosh. But what are principles?
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