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Escaping The Build Trap – Summary and Insights

Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, Escaping The Build Trap, by Melissa Perri. If you are interested in more detailed notes from this book, they are available here.

Escaping The Build Trap


A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

To stay competitive in today’s market, organizations need to adopt a culture of customer-centric practices that focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Companies that live and die by outputs often fall into the “build trap,” cranking out features to meet their schedule rather than the customer’s needs.

In this book, Melissa Perri explains how laying the foundation for great product management can help companies solve real customer problems while achieving business goals. By understanding how to communicate and collaborate within a company structure, you can create a product culture that benefits both the business and the customer. You’ll learn product management principles that can be applied to any organization, big or small.

What is the Build Trap?

A key focus of the book is defining the characteristics of a product-led organization and how to transform a company into a product-led organization. The build trap is when organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes.

Non-product lead companies measure success by output, like the number of features shipped. This is often referred to as a feature factory or being on a feature team. A key characteristic is that the product teams in these companies are given a list of features to build by an executive or other stakeholder. Sales led companies let their contracts define their product strategy. Technology led companies are driven by the latest and coolest technology.

Alternatively, product led companies measure success by outcomes and product teams are empowered to figure out the best way to solve the problems they’ve been asked to solve. Product led companies optimize for their business outcomes, align their product strategy to these goals, and then prioritize the most effective projects that will help develop those products into sustainable drivers of growth. The author states that organizations need the following components to become product lead:

Why do some leaders continue to measure success by features shipped? The author says there’s just too much satisfaction seeing things move at both a leadership and a team level. People want to feel like they are accomplishing things. Checking off the boxes of finished work feels like they are accomplishing things.

Strategic Frameworks

When a strategy is well defined and implemented, it serves as a framework that enables decision making at various levels of the company. This framework is composed of several elements:

A good product strategy connects the vision and economic outcomes of the company back to the product portfolio, individual product initiatives, and solution options for the teams. When strategy is communicated well in an organization, product development and management are synchronized. The company strategy informs the activities of the product development teams, and the execution of work on the products and data this produces informs the company direction. This should be a cyclical process throughout the organization, in which information is being communicated up and down, and across, to ensure alignment and understanding.

Strategic Gaps

One of the most interesting chapters was on the common failure modes of organizations that lack a good strategy. These organizations fail to achieve their objectives in part due to the actions taken to fill the following gaps that exist between outcomes, plans, and actions.

Strategic Gaps

The knowledge gap is the difference between what management would like to know and what the company actually knows. Organizations try to fill this gap by providing and demanding more detailed information. Instead of seeking more detailed information, upper management should be limiting its direction to defining and communicating the strategic intent or the goals of the business. Typically, there’s a lack of alignment, and the goals of the team do not line up to an overall vision and strategy of the company.

Visibility in organizations is absolutely key. The more leaders can understand where teams are, the more they will step back and let the teams execute. The more you try to hide your progress, the wider that knowledge gap becomes. Leaders will demand more information and will crack down on your freedom to explore. If you keep things transparent, you will have more freedom to become autonomous.

The alignment gap is the difference between what people do and what management wants them to do, which is to achieve the business goals. Organizations try to fill this gap by providing more detailed instruction; whereas, instead, they should allow each level within the company to define how it will achieve the intent of the next level up. Product teams need the freedom to explore situations and to adjust their actions according to the data they receive. As long as they are aligned with the overall strategic intents and vision of the company, management should feel comfortable granting the necessary autonomy to capable teams.

The effects gap is the difference between what we expect our actions to achieve and what actually happens. Organizations try to fill this gap by putting more controls in place. Giving individuals and teams the freedom to adjust their actions so that they are in line with their goals is what will truly allow them to achieve results.

Leading by authority is a relic of industrial age methodologies – when low skilled workers were supervised closely so that their output was maximized. Autonomy is what allows organizations to scale. If you are aligned coherently and you have a good strategic framework, you can then allow people to make decisions without a lot of management oversight.

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