October 7, 2011

What Brad Pitt and Moneyball Can Teach Me About Product Design



Saw Moneyball, movie and book, this past weekend. It's a great movie. It's a great story about baseball and yet not at all only about baseball. It's about this baseball team GM who has to rebuild a baseball club because he lost three of his best players to higher paying teams. His budget is a huge constraint; he has roughly one third the payroll of the Yankees. Yet he goes about it and he successfully delivers more wins than his previous season at a fraction of the investment that other teams are making and beats an all time record for the most consecutive wins while at it.

How did he do that?

He plainly had to throw a lot of the knowledge of running a baseball club out the window. He did this because what works for rich teams doesn't work with his limited budget. It's a totally unfair game if he continues playing by the same rules he used to play by and that other teams are using as their bible. The GM, played by Brad Pitt, decides to do things differently. He zooms in on one thing - getting on base. That simplified view of the game allows him to look at players in a different way and acquire talent undervalued by all the other teams. How you get on base and with whom doesn't matter, as long as you get on base. 

Building software products and building baseball teams has more things in common than I thought. There are two phases in the movie; to me it speaks to plan the dive and dive the plan. The take aways are many but I will specifically talk to those two major phases of product creation - planning and execution.

Plan the Dive

How I define the problem space means the world to the potential solutions available. We think of great solutions all the time and solutions are always a side effect to a problem. Great solutions are the product of originally thought problem space definitions. In other words, if I want a run of the mill solution, let's just look at the problem the same way everyone else does.

What are my constraints? Constraints are good innovation drivers. My business goals should encompass my verified constraints.

I say verified constraints. I also need to say verified usage and non usage. I need to go out and observe and research through observations what my users are doing with my product now. What they are not doing can also be very telling. How are they compensating for my product's shortcomings or my lack of encompassing vision. Those limits they are running into, whether self imposed or imposed by my solution, can hold the key to a new way to look at the problem space. Are you in the tire business or the make mommy feel safe business?

Dive the Plan

It's execution time. Moneyball does a great job at this on two fronts for product design.
  1. Do I believe in the underlying principle of what I'm putting forward? In tackling a problem space in a new way there is no middle of the road. One of two outcomes are possible; I fail or I succeed. I find that liberating. It allows me to make the bold decisions required to move the yardstick.
  2. Don't get attached to ideas, no matter how clever they are. A great solution is one made of a few yes's and thousands of no's. I have a very limited supply of yes. It also means I need to make sure I see a lot of ideas and a no to an idea is a successful test. In Moneyball we see Brad Pitt's character getting rid of players to make his 25 player limit. In product design it means vetting ideas to only keep the few that will make the difference. Cutting players, like cutting ideas, is by no means fun or easy and it's part of the job of any successful endeavour.

In wrapping up a bonus take away - in the movie the trading deadline was a huge pressure cooker because it was the time to get the roster in place for good. The parallel I make with this is be ready to accept and embrace a good idea along the way in my product development if it's going to make a difference. That idea I decide to include should round my offering up to increase my chances of getting on base.

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