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Why Every Product Manager Needs A Flux Capacitor

July 28, 2016

6 minute read

While we’re still waiting for hoverboards and self-drying jackets, we can still look at the Back To The Future trilogy and take away some lessons from Doc’s Brown time machine.

No, it’s not driving at 88MPH, but Doc’s flux capacitor (and somewhat interesting planning methods) has a few hidden life lessons for product managers.

Make design decisions based on data

Needing to get back to 1985, Marty seeks out Doc’s help. Unaware he had only just hit his head and came up with the concept of the flux capacitor, which would in turn set off a domino effect bringing Marty to his door in 1955, Marty now has to rely on his knowledge of the future to figure out a plan with Doc Brown. And fast.

Good thing Marty hands Doc a flyer from the future recounting the lightning strike. It’s this critical piece of information that Doc uses to design a plan to get Marty back to 1985.

“Data-driven design looks to ship fast, optimise at every step and let the data drive many of the design decisions. Often (but not always) it is possible to get large percentage improvements with small tweaks as pages have similar and standardised layouts, or a startup only has a few features to optimise for and one specific type of customer to speak to.” 

Alastair Simpson, Design Manager @Atlassian

Product managers should make informed decisions. When you’re looking at features to improve or retire, using collected data will allow you to ship fast and optimize your product quickly.

But how do you know which data to track?

Reddit Co-VPs of Product, Alex Lee and Kavin Stewart, recommend focusing on different thematic organization areas of the product, such as:

  • Core product: How can we make typical use of the product better always?
  • Signup experience: How can we bring more people into our product:
  • Internal tools: How can we optimize the way we are working with infrastructure?
  • Content: What content do we present to users and how?
  • Community: How are we setting communities up for success?
  • Channels: Where and how are we engaging with users outside the core product?
  • Monetization: How do we sustain what we’re doing?

As First Round Review observes,

This cuts a ton of context switching out of your process. You reduce the number of people who work hard to solve problem A only to move over to an entirely unrelated problem B. You group people so they are always attacking grouped, interrelated problems that they know well.

By narrowing your product work into focus areas so you can set up specific, tangible goals for each one.

There are several tracking tools that can track each thematic org area listed above, and by making this a priority and analyzing the data that comes through, product managers can then make accurate development changes and scale growth in a way that makes sense.

Plan with the technology you have, not hope to have

In all his genius, Doc Brown did not foresee (or chose not to consider) that 1.21 gigawatts of power was irresponsible and dangerous.

While his ‘for science!’ moment may have allowed Marty to travel to the past, they now relied on 1.21 gigawatts of power to get him back to the future.

Plutonium was certainly not going to be easily available in 1955, nor in 1985. But having the data at hand, they knew when and where lightning would strike to power up the flux capacitor with the needed boost. Even then, there were unforeseen snags that may have prevented the whole thing from happening.

So what can we learn from this?

Don’t get ahead of yourself.

Scale within your means and build with what’s available to you now. We all want to deliver great quality products, but putting ourselves in technical debt and not being able to support our clients can be more damaging in the long run.

Have your roadmap out for inevitable detours

We may not need roads, but we do still need roadmaps.

Whether Biff ruins your plans or you slip from the top of the clocktower while trying to plug cables together, always remember that life happens. There are things that are just completely out of your control.

At times like these, roll up your sleeves and throw your time frames out. You’re going to be here awhile, and nothing’s going to work out like you thought it would.

The mission hasn’t changed. The vision hasn’t changed either. But the way you get there will.

We product managers have product roadmaps for that.

Your product roadmap serves as a communication tool, outlining your vision and direction.

It also acknowledges the real world – a world that will give us engineering challenges, communication breakdowns, and unexpectedly demanding customers – and gives us the flexibility to accommodate them all.

Use your data to make your own path

In BTTF2 Marty gets a sneak peek at his future, a future he’s already dreading. Due to an accident during a drag race, Marty hurts himself and is unable to play guitar, which makes him angry…and we know that anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

All this just because some bullies taunted him into doing something stupid.

The big lesson here: Don’t just do things because other people are.

You have your data, you have your feedback. Now use it to solve the problem, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone else is doing.

As Paul Graham once said, “Most startups fail because they’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

And that’s what we do: we solve problems our way, for our customers. If what we’re doing has been done before, then what are we in business for?

Keep your eyes open for the ‘pivot’ moment

As he’s being chased by Biff and his goonies, Marty borrows a kid’s box-cart scooter and turns it into a skateboard to get away. His quick thinking allows him to get away, while Biff and gang end up in a pile of fertilizer.

This is what we call the pivot moment.

It’s that moment when you realize the solution in our head doesn’t matter. It’s about solves the problem, whatever that looks like.

Doc Brown used a train to push the Delorean to 88MPH.

So why can’t we also be flexible and creative with our solutions right here in the present?

After a hilarious conversation in MTP’s Slack Channel about Back to the Future and how it relates to product management, I felt compelled to dig deeper into the connection between one of the greatest trilogies ever created and our rockin’ jobs.

Thank you to everyone who participated! This one’s for all of you.

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