Content beats Process: Making leaps in Product

If you're into product development and haven't watched Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview before, I highly recommend it. It's currently on Netflix.

One part that especially jumped out for me was this 90 second clip on content beating process. I suggest you give it a watch before continuing reading.

Watching Steve Jobs you realize how contrarian his thinking was versus much of the conventional views in product development today. Today entrepreneurs are pushed to “get out of the building” and talk to your customers. Steve Jobs famously said "people don't know what they want until you show it to them" – and generally ignored things like customer research and validation.

So who’s right? Both I claim, but I think Jobs has the more fundamental truth that real breakthroughs come from deep thought and sweating the details. This truth is especially profound these days as so many entrepreneurs and companies have leaned too far into process.

Today so many of us have fallen under the spell of Lean Startup thinking. Here ideas and details are discounted if not outright denigrated. When I see people under this ideology work towards breakthroughs they spend an hour thinking up as many ideas as they can onto sticky notes and then it’s about “getting out of the building” and seeing what sticks in the face of customers. There is this back-and-forth between building and validating that emerges but the building part is consciously minimized. You rush through building quick sketches of your idea so you can get back to the real gold: feedback.

Steve Jobs would call people who think like this “bozos”.

I’ll take a more balanced view but if I'm more in one camp it’s towards Jobs. Now I think building-validating cycles are valuable, but we have the weighting backwards. We should be spending more time internally debating and fleshing out an idea and exploring the intricacies that only reveal themselves as you build. The gold is in the art and craftsmanship that is brought to building.

Now the Leaners will say that the Steve Jobs way is risky for your company's prospects. I think there's truth in this because having reliable intuition about new products is exceptionally rare. Most of time when you think you have it, you probably don't. But let’s state another truth which is that entrepreneurship is fundamentally risky. Any process that claims to remove risk comes at a cost. My suspicion is that Lean-thinking leads to derivative products. It helps raise the likelihood that you don’t outright fail, but by following what your customers tell you, you give up a shot at breakthrough. At times this tradeoff makes sense, but you need to think about your goals. Sometimes you need to over-index on process (don't fail) and other times you need to focus on content (real breakthroughs).

For product people that want to be more like Steve Jobs, skip the black turtlenecks and watch the interview above. Also I can recommend a fantastic book I'm reading called Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs. Finally, spend some time learning about Allen Zhang, the founder of WeChat, who seems to be a Jobsian.

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