Brayden Haws

July 12, 2021

The Written Narrative

Empowered by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones is jam-packed with insights and tools for how to build a truly empowered product team and organization. It compiles the learnings from Silicon Valley Product Group and the world's best product organizations and gives you a concise and actionable framework for emulating the way they operate and building your own world class product company.  It's a captivating read that you can go through cover-to-cover, but then also leave on your desk as a reference for your day-to-day efforts and decisions.
As I read through the book (twice so far) I made hundreds of highlights and wrote myself dozens of notes. But there was one concept that struck me stronger than any other and that I have been obsessed with over the past few weeks. It is the idea of a written narrative, more specifically being able to argue for the need for a product or feature and answer concerns about it using a written narrative. The idea is to write out the problem you are trying to solve and how you will solve it, but then to also anticipate objections and form thoughtful responses before those objections are raised. It is a model made famous by Amazon, who starts every meeting with a period of everyone reading a 6-page write-up in silence before discussion begins and a decision is eventually made. 
The reason this hit home so much for me is that writing is one of the ways I do my best thinking. Even in my day-to-day work where I am heads down on a task, working all alone, I will do a write-up of what I need to accomplish, the key requirements, what success looks like and how I intended to approach the work. This helps to guide my actions and when I feel myself getting stuck or needing to make a decision, I can return to my write-up as a guide for how to proceed. I have seen the power of writing in my own work, so it makes total sense to me that when the stakes are raised and you must make decisions that impact your product, your company, and your customers; that a written narrative can be an even more powerful tool and standard.  Being able to clearly communicate the need, the proposed solution and address risks/concerns makes it much easier to gain consensus and commitment from the team and company.  It also serves as a reminder down the road of why you did what you did, it is something you can return to again and again to keep everyone on the same page.
If a written narrative is so great, then why doesn't every team and company use it? Because as Cagan points out, it can be painful, which leads to many people doing all they can to avoid going down this road. The book calls out that Amazon considers this approach their secret to their high-level of innovation. But they aren't afraid to share this secret because they know most won't have the fortitude to adopt this approach for themselves. A written narrative takes time and practice which can dissuade adoption, but all good things take hard work, and investing the time and thought upfront allows you to move faster as you go along.
I would highly encourage everyone to integrate written narrative into their work, even if you're not working in product, it is something you can use to refine your day-to-day work and refine your thought process and decision making. 
What follows are a few of my takeaways for how using a written narrative can impact your work for the better (they may not all align with the author's original intent) but I have certainly felt benefitted in these ways:

  • Focus and Refine Your Thought Process
    • Before making a final decision or acting, a written narrative forces you to sit down and truly deliberate and justify the path you want to go down. It also forces you to consider the alternative paths and the risks associated with each, and then answer why your recommended direction is the most sensible path. This is great for two reasons, first it focuses your thinking upfront and slows you from making a rash or gut decision. And secondly, once that decision has been made, you've walked the path and delivered what you proposed, you can return to that narrative to analyze and refine your thinking. You can review if the assumptions you made were correct, determine if you correctly called out the risks and see if your envisioned outcomes match with reality. Doing this will make your thought process stronger and more refined, which will lead to your next narrative being even stronger, and you can repeat this cycle of refinement over and over. 
  • Stakeholder Management and Persona Development
    • One of the keys to the narrative is anticipating the assumptions and objections of stakeholders and address them before they are raised. This is another great exercise for developing and refining your thinking process. The first time you write a narrative it is unlikely that you will anticipate every objection. Reviewing what you missed is a great way to expand your thinking and help you perform better in this area going forward. While doing this you may also realize that stakeholders do not always think and act the way you expected. Taking the difference in how you anticipated someone would object compared to how they actually did will not only make you better prepared when writing your next narrative, but it will reveal how your stakeholders think, which will benefit you not just in your writing but in any situation when you are interacting with them and need to win their approval or support. 
    • While not directly part of the narrative, I believe you can also use the same concept when developing user personas. You can take the framework of anticipating how someone will react and compare that to how they did. You can then take the difference in those two things and determine why you thought differently or missed in your initial analysis. Doing this repeatedly with both stakeholders and personas will refine your skills and give you the ability to get up to speed with these groups faster and faster over time. 
  • Creates a Source of Truth
    • In fast moving environments, where there are lots of problems to address and lots of people to please, it can be easy for the reason for a decision being made to get lost. What made rational sense just a short time ago can quickly look off to some individuals. They may question why you went down the path you did. A written narrative provides a standard you can return to reinforce why decisions were made. This doesn't mean that with new information decisions can't be changed but rather that in the known context a narrative provides a standard of truth for all, of why something was decided. 
  • Go Fast and Build Great Products
    • One of the reasons people balk at a written narrative is that it seems to take time and work, which may be limited resources when you are trying to build products and please customers. However, when done properly these investments upfront lead to better decision making, which leads to better products and less technical debt, which leads to happy customers, all of which lets you go faster. As with most things, investing up front leads to better outcomes in the future, even if the investment may be painful or seem outsized in the moment. 

About Brayden Haws

Healthcare guy turned tech wannabe. Doing product stuff at Grow. Building Utah Product Guild⚒️. Created the PM A.M. Newsletter. Curated the Patchwork PM Bible. Constantly tinkering on my 🛻. Occasionally writing poor takes on product strategy and technology.

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