Who ever wrote that rule?

The last time I picked my paint brushes, I was very particular about draining the moist tip every time I erased the paint off by dipping the brush into water. I stuck to this thought because I wanted to keep my acrylic paint viscous, the same way it is, and not make it thinner by adding too much water. If you’re wondering whether a wet brush would end up affecting the quality of the paint wash for the canvas—yes it does. It makes the canvas base look like a thinning matte layer instead of a fine thick layer. 

On the other hand, if I had used water soluble paints like watercolor pans, I’d have poured in several drops of water to get the desired paint wash I wanted. The very nature of the paints makes me rational and keeps me focussed on the process with some ground rules.

PMs and process rules

This is so synonymous with product teams as well. Most PMs work on organized timelines [at least keep reprioritizing for that] and set processes so they almost always have instant answers to the questions posted to them. Even if they don’t have such answers, the tools and short-time goals they are working towards end up giving them the points.

Is this feature going live in a week? 

<explains about the roadblocks we might face in the engg side>

Where are we on the competitor analyses?

<shows the major similarities, differentiating factors, and end results>

Have we finalized on the product specifics for the upcoming feature launch?

<goes on to pull the doc, explain, and share that>

PMs form certain processes and rules around tackling these activities, and banking on prior experiences helps them with readiness towards the questions they face every day at their job. 

The art of “Who ever wrote that rule?”

Reading Danny Meyer’s quote one day brought a lot of perspective around figuring the unknown. Whenever he finds something unusual that doesn’t happen to sometimes exist, but he strongly thinks it should, he asks himself “Who ever wrote that rule?”

As a restaurant entrepreneur, Danny ends up thinking about this line quite often, which led him to explore opportunities that other people didn’t see. Whether it’s a compelling location no one found interesting, or a cuisine that’s a blend of two artisanal forms—he always believes in setting the context, before setting the table. 

And, this is a trait that can be applied to building products as well. Re-framing the context of something users are already familiar with, and solving for that in the product brings a touch of novelty and excellence. When adapted as a mindset, it helps uncover a lot more opportunities than what we are exposed to.

When to bank on “Who ever wrote that rule?”

Breaking patterns for coming up with new ideas or going by pre-defined logic?

The best part is knowing when to put it to use. Dismissing by questioning who wrote the rule and mixing water with my viscous paint is definitely going to lead to a disaster. Similarly, wondering who wrote the rule and constantly changing the product specs or prioritization lists is going to keep PMs at a wrong pace with their engineers and designers. In both of these examples, sticking to conventional, pre-existing process rules brings the right outcomes.

However, “who ever wrote that rule?” is a wonderful tool to plan for long-term, strategic bets as well as come up with new ideas for products, partnerships, and expansion in the early or mid stages of a company. The power of this mindset is that one doesn’t have the rigid rule to execute every idea that comes through this thinking. But planning for how something needn’t be according to strict norms helps in alternate outcomes, escaping from contrived results. 

Vision narratives:

One has to clearly go beyond periodic plans and checklists to arrive at what the brand and the product would stand for in the next 5+ years to come. “Who ever wrote that rule?” perfectly applies here, as there’s no pressure to execute everything one comes up with, and these things keep changing according to the technology tide. But the very fact of having to think in the realms that no one has ever done leads to finding those differentiators for the product. 

Netflix investing in the research and development of streaming service, by breaking out of the DVD market, is an example of following an unconventional path that benefits their business model. 

Early-stage ideas and cx improvement:

Wow-ing early users and implementing ideas to kindle excitement in them are truly on a different level from planning day-to-day stuff for optimizing a mid-stage product. Breaking regularity and trying unique gestures could go a long way in helping understand the users better.

During the initial days of Airbnb, apart from staying together with those handful of hosts in their condos to study their motivations, Brian Chesky also used a design thinking technique to (re)imagine some aspects of customer experience; what they’d actually never do or have never done until now. He’d chart out random scales of star rating and list down what series of actions from the host and Airbnb would instil the “wow” factor for the early users that they immediately recommend Airbnb to everyone.

From 1-star to 11-stars, he’d come up with fictitious scenarios, more of a crazy exercise, that he quotes “you almost design the extreme to come backward.”

Advantage? He doesn’t have to implement all of what he dreamt, but this definitely gave Brian a slice of what actual magical customer experience could do to the brand’s popularity. And, hence came some meaningful features in the product. 

Generate your own mindset journal:

By working on early-stage products, a favorite activity I do, amidst the process-oriented tasks, is use the “who ever wrote that rule” mindset to come up with alternate suggestions. Noting down what are the other ways to do something, new ideas that sound bizarre but could actually work, and how to help others understand meaning and bring consensus—doing this as an exercise really helps. 

Stepping away from the default once in a while leads to great things and Danny’s quote could definitely help most PMs do that.