Product Like Jazz

facebook twitter

There’s a scene in the six-time Academy Award winning movie La La Land where one of the main characters, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), explains to the other main character, Mia (played by Emma Stone), why Jazz music is so exciting. You can either watch it here or read it below . . . your choice. 

“Jazz was born in a little flophouse in New Orleans, and it just—because people were crammed in there, they spoke five different languages, they couldn't talk to each other. The only way they could communicate was with jazz.”

And then later in the scene when the band is mid-song, he goes on to say:

“Look at this, look at the sax player right now, he just hijacked the song, he’s on his own trip. Every one of these guys is composing, they’re rearranging, they’re writing, and they’re playing the melody, they’re just—and now look, the trumpet player, he’s got his own idea. And so it’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s just new every time, it’s brand-new every night. It’s very, very exciting.”

This is exactly how I feel about product squads. We are constantly feeding off of each other, coming up with ideas, bouncing them off of one another, digging into the code, diving into data, interviewing customers, coming up with some new insight or way to make our experience better. The idea that we have set times for “ideation” seems silly. People don’t think like that. Inspiration can strike anytime, anywhere. 

The worst thing I think you can do to a product squad member when they say, “I have an idea,” is say, “Oh, sweet, bring it to the ideation meeting on Monday.” NO, NO, NO! Riff on the idea a little, beat up on it for a few minutes with the team while it’s still fresh. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking right now, That’s chaos—how do you ever get anything done? Great question, but before I answer it, let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion. 

Several years ago, I followed the typical product squad ritual process. Ideation meeting on Monday, refinement meeting on Wednesday, and estimation meeting on Thursday. We had been in this routine for about six months when I read this article by Marty Cagan that rocked me. I realized we were what Cagan calls a “feature team.” I sent that article to my team and said that instead of ideation, we were going to talk about this article. Well, my team came to the same conclusion I did: That we were indeed a feature team, and we needed to make some changes to move toward an empowered product team. 

The first thing we said was that we needed more on-purpose time together, so I booked a room for three hours a day, every day of the work week, for us to just be in the same proximity to one another, and I threw out ideation meetings, refinement meetings and estimation meetings. 

I’d love to say that one move solved the problem, but just like product work, our idea required some iteration. We discovered that we spent a lot of time in this “team time” in ideation. This was 100% my fault, as I’m constantly thinking ahead, and I tend to drive the conversation. Thankfully, my team had enough trust to tell me we were over-indexing on ideation time, and we were able to reign that in. We worked through the most effective way to use this time over several months until one day we showed up to our conference room and found it occupied. I discovered that I had forgotten to re-book our recurring room—panic! 

It was then that one of our engineers said, “Why do we need a room? Can’t we just do this at our desks? We all sit next to each other anyway, and to be honest, I’m way more effective with two monitors.” After discussing this with the team, we decided that this could work. Well, that was two years ago, and we’re still going strong. There have been sometimes where we’ve had to have conversations about not accepting meetings during our designated time, but overall, it’s been incredible. We are making jazz, product style. 

As for the question, “That’s chaos—how do you ever get anything done?”—you’d be surprised how good your team can get at composing, rearranging, writing and playing the melody. It does take practice, and certainly some on-purpose conversations, but the music you’ll make is worth it. 

So, here’s my challenge to you:

Does your team feel more like a middle-school band, only playing the sheet music that’s given to you? Do you feel like there is way more creativity in your team that is not being used? If that’s you, check out the Marty Cagan post I linked above, share it with your team, and have an honest conversation about where you think you fall. Then, if the idea of working collaboratively without structured meetings for specific reasons sounds appealing, give it a try. I don’t regret it for a second, and I’m willing to bet, you won’t either. 

P.S. If you like the idea of making Product Jazz in an awesome environment with really smart people who do work that changes lives, we’re hiring!