Discomfort and Serendipity to Achieve Amazing Results as a PM

The following was written by a guest blogger. If you would like to contribute, please contact ellen@productschool.com

Hi, I’m Gustavo Comitre, Product Manager of the Patient Experience area at Docplanner Group, the world’s biggest healthcare platform with +30M patients monthly,  and today I would like to bring lessons about two topics that are connected but we don’t usually see much in product management discussions: Serendipity and Discomfort to bring amazing results.

If serendipity is a new word for you, it means something like: “The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident”

I have yet to meet a Product Manager with a linear path from the beginning to the current moment of her/his career. The truth is, the vast majority travel a circuitous path of upsides, challenges, and changes; every journey is unique. And do you know which other thing is similar to it? Well, our products, right? 

Have you ever built a product that since you started working on it, you delivered and your users behaved exactly as you expected?

  • If the answer is yes: probably you were a project manager of this product, and there is a high probability that you lost opportunities in the journey of delivering this product.
  • If the answer is no: don’t worry, you passed by challenges that most product managers had, but there are valuable lessons about it when you adapted your product according to the circumstances.

Discomfort and be ready to change

First, don’t confuse change with giving up. Change is about understanding you can’t maintain the current status quo and somehow need you to make something different, modify it.

In 2019 I was living and studying in Silicon Valley for some months, where I had the opportunity to meet awesome people and also take some classes at Stanford. And at this university, there is a monument that I’m passionate about; the monument to Change as it Changes, created by Peter Wegner.  Many times I went there, bought a coffee at Coupa Cafe and I stood looking at this monument for hours. Usually, monuments commemorate past events but Wegner challenged it, he created it to celebrate the process of change.

Change as it Changes by Peter Wegner
Image courtesy of the monument’s artist, Peter Wegner

“European train stations use this technology to announce arrivals and departures. Here, the destination is always color and always changing.” — Peter Wegner

This piece of art tries to prepare and challenge students from GSB (Stanford Graduate School of Business) about the uncertainty, but also that they can be responsible for the change.

Check this video to understand how this monument works:

Another really nice example about change and discomfort I got from Ken Norton, Director of Product at Figma and former Director of Google Ventures, when he brought a topic that made me really curious in one of those meetups in the Bay Area: What Product Teams can learn from Jazz Musicians.

He gave an example from Ella Fitzgerald, a jazz singer that decided to sing a popular song that she had never performed live, and in the middle of the performance, she forgot the lyrics. What would you do in her situation? Repeat the chorus, stop singing? Well, she improvised and also had her band follow her on this performance. In the end, the audience loved it, it was awesome!

He used this analogy between Jazz and PMs to explain that great professionals in these areas improvise and reinvent themselves all the time. As product managers, we can’t freak out and we need to adapt accordingly to the circumstances.

As PMs, risks, and changes are part of our job and we need to accept it. We will probably make mistakes in the process but we need to use it as fuel to create something incredible.

In my opinion, performance and stress are connected in our job as PMs, we need to find the right balance of discomfort to go in the right direction.

Performance vs Stress grapgh

Dream big embracing serendipity

For me, dream big is directly connected to serendipity. Do you know why? Because in order to be able to dream big, first, you need to be an optimistic person. And naturally, optimism opens doors of opportunities, curiosity, and discovery, and step by step, serendipity appears; it’s the “miracle” of luck or good fortune in finding something good accidentally.

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Especially as a product manager, this mindset is really important, because if you want to move your team forward to achieve big goals, you need to share it with them and of course, they need to believe in it. And the connection between your dream with the best abilities, such as your technical knowledge, analytical skills, communication, design, etc, will help you get your team believing it’s possible too.

Gustavo and Mike

I had the opportunity to see Mike Krieger, founder of Instagram, sharing a little bit about Instagram’s history at an event, and actually, it’s a good example of serendipity; he was planning to build something cool for users: an app to share photos and location which he and his co-founder started naming it as Burbn. He had difficulty in the beginning but later they were adapting, understanding that they could explore the market of photography and filters for smartphones, changing it on their product, and finally, they renamed and relaunched as Instagram. And then, 2 years later you already know the rest of the story; it was sold to Facebook for $ 1 billion.

Yelp, Twitter, Slack, Pinterest, Groupon, and even the famous Post-Its were created by “accident”, or better said, by optimistic people looking for something big and iterating according to what they had on their hands.

Your big dreams – 10x magnitude

Well, now that you got the idea about serendipity and dream big, I want to share with you a phrase from Jorge Paulo Lemann that I really love…

“To have a big dream requires the same effort as having a small dream”

What are big dreams in the product area? Well, they’re about working on things that can bring 10x more impact, revenue, customers, etc, instead of small changes that can affect 1–10%.

I know it sounds crazy to focus on 10x magnitude, especially when, as product managers, we are really focused on an experimental culture to optimize things, such as improve 2% in our CVR, bring more traffic with a small hack here or there. I’m not telling you to drop it, actually, this is a really important part of our job, but what I want to challenge you is to always keep pushing yourself to think about big things, forget what you have on the table at the moment, because then your position can be more strategic, you can disrupt your market or your product.

I’m trying to avoid cliche examples such as Netflix or Kodak, so another good one is about radios. In the 1950s, middle-class families typically had a radio on their house, but these models used vacuum tubes, and even with excellent sound quality, they were expensive and inefficient.

Later, Sony’s put in the market transistor radios, a 10x cheaper, 10x smaller and portable, but the sound quality, unfortunately, was not comparable to the vacuum tubes radios. What happened? Well, teenagers were interested in the freedom and the ability to listen to music wherever they wanted and for an affordable price. High-end radio companies didn’t care about it, because it was a new market and it was not affecting their current market.

Vacuum tubes radio vs transistor radio

But of course, a 10x magnitude product also has room for improvement, so in a couple of years, transistor radio quality got incrementally better and changed how people listen to music, a real musical and cultural revolution worldwide and created the road for new generations of music players, such as Walkman, CD Players and later smartphone apps.

How to apply 10x magnitude?

It’s not easy to bring 10x magnitude to life, but trust me, thinking about 10x things is one of the best exercises you can do to imagine the future of your company or product.

Here at Docplanner, every quarter we try to do a Product Vision exercise between Product Managers and it’s really interesting to push ourselves on how we can achieve our long term goal not only with small improvements but also with big changes in how doctors and patients think and iterate with healthcare products.

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We try to use data to balance our predictions, and our Head of Product always tries to challenge us about our numbers and how we can reach things faster. These questions bring discomfort and push us forward to rethink how we iterate with patients and doctors to find 10x ideas instead of marginal improvements.

Product vision focused on patients

Of course, these ideas have chances to fail, but when we are talking about bets, the main purpose is to test something, so we need to accept that sometimes we will fail in our hypotheses, it’s part of the game. But it’s always how you push yourself to test these ideas faster and learn with each iteration, so even if you discover that part of your bets will not work, you will adapt it accordingly with the feedback of your users or sometimes just drop it, don’t try to always be right or trick your experiments.

Alone you are crazy, with your team you become a visionary

Again I want to start with a phrase that represents a feeling that I always share with my team:

Great products are the result of product, design, and engineering working together 

Frequently I hear some PMs in other companies making the mistake of creating a lot of requirements and giving it to the team to ship it. Clearly you reduce significantly the stress of your team and in the short term maybe they will be really happy with you, but you’ll also break the entire product discovery flow, because the “solution” is already defined and nothing new will appear from engineers or designers, for example.

We try to dream and create things together because if it’s only my dream, I have a high risk to be interpreted as crazy and consequently fail. When we don’t have a common dream, our vision is lost, developers start to only think in the code (but without any impact to the user), designers only make something beautiful (but maybe not so useful for users), etc.

So I share with my team the responsibility to achieve our goal, and we always reinforce and challenge ourselves to achieve big results.

A good example of a feature, from the Patient Experience Team, which we had a good balance of contribution from our entire team, developers, designers, product analysts, and researchers. They worked together to refine and think big, but also we split in different iterations to reduce the risk of failure and validate each step of our plan.

Monthly active users vs time

And the numbers say it by themselves how good it is to get help from your entire team, right? We multiplied by 10x our monthly active users on this specific feature and actually, this is one of the reasons I decided to create this article, to explain that 10x magnitude is possible, not necessarily we will multiple by 10 times from one day to another, but with a good balance between vision, discomfort, be ready to change and good synergy with your team, it’s doable.

Meet Gustavo Comitre

Gustavo Comitre

Gustavo Comitre is a Senior Product Manager at Docplanner Group based in Barcelona, Spain. He is passionate about the healthcare market, especially about topics related to patient experience and connectivity between patients and doctors. In the past years, he was responsible for different mobile and web features, reaching millions of users worldwide, and some of those products were featured apps at App Store (Apple) and Google Play.

Product Phases

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