Seeing Wide and Deep

A version of this post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Teams that manage or design digital products are often narrowly focused on their domains. These teams care about the needs of their stakeholders and users, the features that will accommodate those needs, the rollout of those features over time, their performance (financial and otherwise), the constraints and possibilities of their infrastructure, etc. It’s a lot to track.

These folks must maintain this focus to produce results — especially if they’re working in complex domains. But there’s a risk: by so focusing their efforts, they can become inwardly-oriented, missing opportunities to innovate. For example, I’ve worked with product teams who have trouble seeing outside of their industry. As a result, they understand their offerings primarily in relation to what competitors are doing. These teams would benefit from an external perspective.

There’s another field that has embraced an “outsider” role in the creative process, one which may be worth emulating: the music industry.

Think of a pop song you love, one that brightens your day. You likely know the name of the artist who sings it. However, creating a successful song isn’t only up to the artist; there’s a team behind most hits. One of the key members of this team is the music producer.

The producer isn’t the song’s author or performer. Instead, the producer works with artists to help them reach their potential. Among other things, the producer helps them anticipate trends, break out of ruts, find new uses for innovative technologies, identify and recruit collaborators, manage the recording process, and generally shake things up by helping artists experience their work in a broader context.

To do these things, the producer must know the workings of the studio, the economics and politics of the industry, the past and present of the genre, what other artists are doing, and more. Few musical artists can master these skills while also excelling at writing and performing their music. One way to think about it is that where artists go deep, producers go wide. It makes for a powerful partnership.

I don’t think such a role currently exists in product organizations, but it should. (I suspect it must be played by an outsider, someone not looking to “join the band.” One of the ways producers add value is by cross-pollinating frameworks.) Teams that can see deep and wide can better understand the boundaries of their systems and articulate more clearly the problems they’re addressing. Teams with a broadened perspective can see and connect dots that others miss, revealing new opportunities.