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Product Lessons learned from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the topic of this episode. Two ideas that seem incongruent on the surface, are creatively tied together by the Product Outsiders as they talk about their own NaNoWriMo experiences and how lessons learned during their writing journeys can be applied to building great products.
Interested in learning more or follow along on Amber and Tammy’s Nano journey this year? Add them as buddies on the Nanowrimo site.
[00:00:00] Amber Hansford: Welcome to Product Outsiders, a podcast for unconventional product people.
In a world awash and MBAs and fancy suits, we’re the people standing on the outside, our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some stuff done. We’re not product managers in the way you might think, but we’re undeniably passionate about solving problems for real people in ways that create real value, whatever you call us, we’re dedicated to building great collaborative teams and making incredible products together.
In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about finding product lessons from NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. I’m Amber Hansford, I’m a UX design manager and I’m also a amateur writer.
[00:01:00] Tammy Bulson: I’m Tammy Bulson, I’m an agile practitioner. And I also write in my spare time.
[00:01:08] Will Sansbury: And I’m Will Sansbury. I’m a product management leader who holds an English literature degree and aspired to write the great American novel at one point in time.
[00:01:15] Amber Hansford: Only one point in time? I mean, every year I put myself through NaNoWriMo. I actually convinced both of you to join me and NaNoWriMo last year. As far as those folks who aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo or national novel writing month, if you go to nanowrimo.org, it is a yearly competition that happens every November and you are tasked to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
It has been absolutely amazing for me as a writer, because it’s one of the few times that I can actually turn off my internal editor in my brain and just get those words out. 50,000 seems like it’s super hard for 30 days, but really it averages out to like sixteen hundred, 1667, if I remember properly, a day, for 30 days and you can do it all in a bunch, you can do it one by one every day, as long as you make that 50 K, it’s all good. And you’re a winner and you get, you know, cute little digital swag every year. As an author, I will use that as my litmus test. If I can pull 50,000 words out of the air in a month, that means that that story plot might actually be worthwhile to finish. Because if you look at most traditional novels, they’re not really 50,000 words, they’re usually around 80,000 words on average.
Now, what does this have to do with product management? I look at a product manager, if you’re a great storyteller, you can be a great product manager. You’ve got to be able to have your beginning and your middle and your end on a logistical level, but you’ve also got to be that kind of person who can tell the right analogy, tell the right story to all of the people you meet, whether it be your customers or your stakeholders or your developers, to be able to make sure that everybody is on the same page. Tammy?
[00:03:24] Tammy Bulson: When Amber talked about, Hey, let’s do an episode on NaNoWriMo and building great products, my first thought was how are we going to tie the two together?
And I didn’t even think about the storytelling piece when I was thinking about it from an experimentation perspective. We have to have experiments when we’re building products to make sure that we’re building the right thing. When Amber convinced me to do NaNoWriMo, I was in essence experimenting. Could I write 50,000 words in a month with some help and encouragement from my friends? And just like when you’re building great products, you experiment to find out what works best. You inspect and adapt based on what you’ve learned. So when we’re writing and we’re trying to get 50,000 words in a month, We’re also inspecting and adapting what works best, what time of the day works best for writing? What happens if I just brain dump into my fingertips? How much usable content am I left with? So same thing or similarities anyway, to building great products. You’re experimenting, you’re inspecting and adapting and finding how to apply those lessons to help build the right thing. The storytelling. I didn’t even go there. Will, I bet you did.
[00:04:40] Will Sansbury: Yeah. I think storytelling is, is such a critical thing for product managers, but it’s not actually where my brain jumped first. I immediately thought of a letter press sign that I have that goes with me from job to job, office to office, that I know both of you have seen. It says “All glory comes from daring to begin”. That’s a quote from Eugene Ware, who was a writer in the second half of the 1800s. He actually published under the pseudonym of Iron Quill, which let’s be honest, that’s awesome. And I really know nothing about his body of work, other than this quote, it struck me as really cool and on Etsy, so I bought it, but it keeps me reminded and grounded that just beginning is such an important thing. If you just get started, if you just get moving, you might do something awesome. I think about that with novel writing pursuits. You know, Amber, you did convince me to do NaNoWriMo last year, but I will confess that I failed miserably and I failed miserably because I got myself absolutely paralyzed.
I kept thinking about, how do I get the story that starting to take shape in my head and get it out into the real world? And because I couldn’t get to perfect fast enough, I just didn’t try. And I see that as a problem with a lot of product pursuits as well, right? You think about needing to get that first iteration of your product out there so that you can get some feedback. You need to get that first MVP that, you should know out of the gate, it’s going to be terrible, but you just got to start. All glory comes from daring to begin, and that means that when we begin most of the time, we make a lot of crap before we make anything good. For the three or four days last year that I actually stuck with NaNoWriMo, whew. I made some crap.
[00:06:29] Amber Hansford: Okay. So I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo since ’03. I am about 50/50 on wins and losses. But, and I used to take that personally, but then again, even when I was product, just to tie this back, I used to believe in the single wringable neck, you know? Perfect became the thing, the goal, even in my writing, once I started looking at it as a jumping off point for NaNoWriMo to see if something was viable, then NaNoWriMo became my MVP generator.
Really and truly. It, you know, if I could get that 50K out of a two line story plot that I wrote down probably in April or May of, Hey, this would be a really cool story. And then I find out, you know what? No, no, really it’s not, it’s not good. And I usually bog down around, I’d say 30 K that’s usually my, my hump, if I get past 30 K, this probably got legs.
Your MVP, when you first put it out, it’s not going to be great. I highly doubt it’s going to be good, but does it solve a customer problem enough that they’ll get past the suck? So then you can iterate and make it better.
[00:07:51] Will Sansbury: I think the other problem I had is I, I started with too much energy in the wrong place last year. Because I have this absolutely beautifully organized Wiki of characters and locations and plot points, but what I didn’t have as an actual story, worth telling, you know? So I had spent all of this time and energy in building up this world, or this notion, this group of characters, that’s not what I needed to do at the beginning. When I needed to do the beginning is just get started and find the narrative threads so I can hang on to it and write it through. And I think that’s true with products too. Right?
You can spend so much time putting together the absolutely, perfect, gorgeous PRD or backlog, but does that actually help you do anything good in the world for customers or for users? Not necessarily. Sometimes you’re better off just getting started, recognizing that you’re going to be spending your time making better and better approximations and never getting to perfect, but you do something pretty cool by the time you’re done.
[00:08:54] Tammy Bulson: Progress over perfection, right? Getting something out there and getting feedback, so you make sure that the next bit of work that you do is the right work.
[00:09:03] Amber Hansford: You try to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. So in Nano there, and also in a lot of writing circles, people ask, when you say that you’re a writer, if they’re familiar, are you a pantser or are you plotter? And I like to say that I’m a “plantser”, because good enough is good enough. I will usually start with a very rough draft. If I go off the deep end, very similar to Will, of, you know, very intense character, very intense scenes, things like that. If my outline is more than two pages, I guarantee you I’m going to fail at Nano. I’ve learned that the hard way. And with products, if you go in and you base everything on an assumption, and then you find out your assumptions wrong, you can have the most beautiful thing on the planet that nobody uses.
[00:09:54] Will Sansbury: It’s funny how little we know ourselves sometimes. You both experienced at different times, you know, my, I would have to say I’m probably a pantser. I don’t know this for sure. I’m very comfortable with just kind of jumping in and figuring things out. If I’m going to hold an all day discovery workshop, I might have three or four bullet points written down by the time the workshop starts. So it’s interesting that I wanted to be successful at NaNoWriMo so much that I operated contrary to my nature. And I think it, it bit me in the end.
[00:10:25] Tammy Bulson: You’re definitely a pantser.
[00:10:30] Will Sansbury: I think that, y’all have been the recipient of the chaos at times.
[00:10:36] Tammy Bulson: And sometimes I think plotter, even if you’re writing, just like building products, you can’t know all the things, unless you have a crystal ball, which none of us do. We need to get stuff out there and get that feedback. Get our writing in the wild, get our products in the wild and hear what other people think.
So Amber, I’m with you. I think, uh, a planster? Is that the right word?
[00:11:02] Amber Hansford: It looks better when it’s written down in like the Nano forums than it does when you say it out loud.
[00:11:09] Tammy Bulson: Yeah. It’s like when you are a planster, this sounds really funny, but you have guard rails just like when you’re building great products. You know, at a high level, the problem you’re trying to solve right? What you’re trying to do. But you don’t know exactly how you’re going to get there. That’s the part of just winging it and flying by the seat of your pants to try to figure out what are the best things out there, right?
[00:11:30] Will Sansbury: It really is a beautiful metaphor for how product management has evolved as a discipline over the last couple of decades. When I started out in software, a product manager was the person that wrote the giant three ring binder, five inch three ring binder, full of product requirements that had to be absolutely perfect, planned out in every detail and fully known before any development began. Very few places, I think, do product development or product management that way anymore thankfully. So now, Amber’s making a face that says she, maybe not.
[00:12:05] Amber Hansford: I would say that, yes, it is less, but I feel like there’s a lot of people that do more performative product management than actual product management out there. And, you know, there’ll be like, But we’re, we’re agile. We’re doing product. Not really, when your PRDs, they read like Finnegans Wake instead of just a framework, just those guard rails to be able to either prove or disprove to validate or reject.
[00:12:40] Will Sansbury: Yeah. I, and I do think, I think maybe that’s where people get tripped up. We don’t want to be that complete planner, right? You don’t want to plot every piece of it out. And people assume if you’re not doing that, you must be a dyed in the wool pantser, but there is this third way. There’s a way of getting just enough, getting the scaffolding that lets you, like you said, Tammy, get out there and learn. Get a little bit of feedback on what you’re doing.
I’ve got a question as the failed NaNoWriMo participant, still a little bit of an outsider looking in. How does that play out in your writing process? Do you take what you’re writing and put it in front of people to get feedback? How do you get that feedback loop established for your novels?
[00:13:22] Amber Hansford: Come about mid-October I go, oh, I need to sign up for Nano. I need to figure out what I’m going to write. I go through, I’ve got a doc that literally does have like two lines, maybe four lines of some snippet of an idea. I try to do a rough 16 chapter, one liner for each chapter outline.
Then November comes around. I do my 50 K. I then don’t touch that file until January I leave it be the entire month of December. Come January, I go and I do one single read through, and then I put it in front of my writer’s group for critique where it’s usually like 2,500 words, which usually is about a chapter, just to get some feedback, but I always do a rough edit before they see it, because they will call me out for bad grammar and all that, which I honestly do suck at.
Tammy, what about you?
[00:14:23] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, I do similar. My hardest, the hardest thing for me is to not edit as I go. So I have to tell myself I’m just going to write. I don’t care if it sucks. I just got to get something down on paper. And I will tell myself I’m going to write, you know, however many thousand words before I even read it back to myself. And having that focusing on having to get to the 50,000 words, it helps me do that because I’m trying to hit the number, knowing some of it’s going to be throwaway or garbage.
But the same is you do Amber. When I get that to the finish line, and I, well, last year I did get my 50,000 words. Hopefully this year I will too. But when I got that, I also went back and did some preliminary, let me just make sure this roughly makes sense before sending it off to my proofreader group.
[00:15:11] Will Sansbury: So I’m, I’m thinking immediately about one of our favorite stans out there in the product world, Jeff Patton, with user story mapping.
[00:15:20] Amber Hansford: Yes!
[00:15:21] Will Sansbury: And the user story mapping process, one of the hardest things to do to get people to embrace, is just write a crap ton of bad stickies and put them up there until you start to see a pattern emerge. And, you know, I think there’s, there’s something NaNoWriMo can teach us about that. And, you know, I think people so often will approach user story mapping with that plot already in place. They already think they know what the activity is across the top bar. And then I tried to just fill in the pieces that fit. And one of the things that’s striking me having this conversation with both of you is, there’s an underlying thread of just how curious are you remaining? How open to being surprised are you remaining?
That’s something that as I’m leading product managers is a challenge. I’ve seen a lot of folks in the product management space who define their value based on what they know and getting them to instead recognize that their super power is not in knowing it’s an knowing how to know. I don’t know. I got a little philosophical there.
[00:16:25] Amber Hansford: With managing a team of UX designers, they feel like gotta be pixel perfect before anybody sees it. I’m like, no, the whole part of discovery is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It never has to be perfect. It will never be perfect because you can make the most beautiful, and pixel-perfect thing in Invision, and then you have to hand it off to somebody else to build and they are never going to get it quite the same. So you’ve got to be good enough to be good with good enough.
[00:17:00] Will Sansbury: Do you think they recognize, and this is directly analogous to the putting together a backlog, whether you’re using story mapping or some other means, but do you think they recognize that it’s not just don’t do pixel perfect because you’re investing too much time in it, it’s also that if it starts to look too fully baked, you don’t actually learn anymore. Your brain gets cut off from this notion of there’s something else out there. You can’t be surprised anymore. You paint yourself into a corner.
[00:17:28] Amber Hansford: Yeah. When we get in front for usability testing in particular, I’ve started noticing that there’s a lot of wanting to lead, instead of by the actual testers, you know how we usually train UXers as they’re doing usability tests, not to lead the customer. But it’s just as much of a problem if you lead the customer with the way that you’ve built your prototype, as well as actually leading them verbally or physically through something. And that, that is a huge problem. You’re never going to get good data if you kind of spoonfeed, you need to get that raw feedback, which is why I also don’t do anything other than a quick rough edit before I send it off to my writer’s group for critique with my Nano, is because I know it sucks. One time I went like halfway through a story in my presentation and realized I changed the antagonist name midway through.
[00:18:34] Tammy Bulson: You know what’s funny about this conversation is as I’m listening to us talk about it, it just reinforces that whole thinking and why I know that we all believe in working in teams and having product discovery teams, because you need that diversity of opinion to make sure that you have a solid product that won’t be built for just one person. So the same with us writing and then looking at it ourselves, we’re not going to catch things and we’re not going to make sure we’re really hitting the mark for a wider range of people if we don’t get that diversity of opinion.
[00:19:06] Amber Hansford: Yeah.
[00:19:08] Tammy Bulson: So it’s just, there’s just so much overlap and thinking here.
[00:19:12] Amber Hansford: You need that extra set of eyes, you need people coming from different disciplines, different backgrounds, different knowledge bases. You can all technically be listed as a subject matter expert within your product, but your expertise is in very different fashions. I would never have a discovery team made up exclusively of, you know, a certain discipline or even a certain outlook.
I want those discovery teams in particular and the delivery teams to be a diverse group of people with different experiences so that they can call that out if they see something that’s wobbly.
[00:19:55] Will Sansbury: We’ve hit on a lot of the parallels between NaNoWriMo and product and UX, just from a process standpoint. But what about that thread of storytelling? How do we learn from, not even just NaNoWriMo, but literature in general. How do we learn from that to become better product managers in our storytelling capabilities?
[00:20:16] Amber Hansford: You, at your core, to be a good product manager, you need to be a facilitator and negotiator. The negotiation part? You gotta be able to sell that story. You’ve got to be able to have a continuous narrative thread as to why this is important to your customers and how it’s going to solve that problem. You have got to be able to express that, and you’ve got to be able to express that in different ways to different people. Talking to a developer about how to get them invested in why this product is important to build is a completely different story than trying to talk to your ELT to get funding for this product that will solve your customer’s problem and why it is important.
[00:21:09] Tammy Bulson: I think another parallel track here too around storytelling is kind of going back to Patton again. We’re also telling the story from the user’s perspective or the customer’s perspective and the telling of that story and how the user will use the thing in their day-to-day life or the problems that they’re trying to solve. When we tell that story, I think it helps create empathy, and it helps people that are designing products better understand the user and why it’s important because now they know their story too.
[00:21:41] Amber Hansford: That is very true.
[00:21:42] Will Sansbury: I’m thinking now about the notion of, I don’t know, this is going to sound a little weird maybe, but I think one of the things that at least attracts me to the entire space of product management and product design is we get to do something kind of magical. We get to see the world as it is, and we get to imagine it as it could be. And then we get to inspire people to help us make that a reality. Like you said, Amber, there’s, there’s so much that we’ve got to be able to do to help people pick up on that vision, right? We can’t just expect that we can say, Hey, the world sucks now, but it could be better and here’s a backlog with 15 user stories. Go get them. Right. You got to tell that story in a much more compelling way. If you really want people to buy in and get passionate about seeing you come become real.
[00:22:33] Amber Hansford: Not to really go back to tools or process or anything. When I was product, that’s why I, I fell in love with Gherkin. All of my tickets always had gherkins in it. What are we doing? Who are we doing this for? Why is it important? It also, as a former developer going into product, it got me away from the code. Because I could talk to developers all live long day, but I would also end up telling them how to code. And I knew that was wrong, but that gave me that layer away from it. And it made me a better storyteller to also compress into a simplistic format, what it was that I was asking them to do.
To again, pull it back to Nano, 50,000 words in a month. Lots of people look at that and freak out, but that Gherkin was the same kind of tool to me to help compress those thoughts into something that was easily digestible that everybody could look at and understand. And if they didn’t understand it, they damn well sure called me out on it.
[00:23:43] Will Sansbury: I’ve got a question for you.
[00:23:45] Amber Hansford: Um-hm?
[00:23:45] Will Sansbury: You’ve how many times have you done NaNoWriMo?
[00:23:48] Amber Hansford: Eighteen years?
[00:23:51] Will Sansbury: And you said about 50/50 whether or not you’ve hit the 50,000 words. Have you ever blown past 50,000 words?
[00:23:57] Amber Hansford: One time? I actually got almost to 70 K. Only once, but a lot of that has to do with how much time I also kind of set aside in my schedule. It’s well known by everybody that knows me, I have a Too Much gene, so I do have to actually like time-box myself. So that’s the one time that I did.
[00:24:19] Will Sansbury: So I have this working theory going right now that is enticing to me, but I recognize also incredibly dangerous. And that theory is that estimation as we practice it in the software development product development world is fairly useless. Because the one thing we don’t factor into the equation is passion and engagement of the people doing the work.
[00:24:41] Amber Hansford: Oh yeah.
[00:24:42] Will Sansbury: I would bet, you know, you can tell me if I’m wrong here, but I would bet that 70,000 word story was one of the favorites that.
[00:24:48] Amber Hansford: Yeah, it’s the one that I’ve actually, I’ve got to do a couple of more final drafts, but it will probably be my first self published work.
[00:24:57] Will Sansbury: Awesome. So, yeah, that’s one of those things that I can say out loud in this crowd. I, of course don’t want to go say in too many settings that we can get a hell of a lot more than we think we can out of what we have. Cause I becomes abusive very fast, but got it.
[00:25:12] Amber Hansford: Yeah, I mean, people would take advantage of that. My opinion has always been never devalue trying to invest your teams into what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You get better work, even if you may stay within those guidelines of estimation, because one reason or another. I time box myself on Nano, you know, on purpose because I have too much stuff that I like to do. And I like to turn small hobbies into minor obsessions, but in a similar vein, you still get better work if you get that investment from your entire team. And part of how you build that investment is to make sure that you have a healthy product team across the board. That’s the first step to investment. They believe in the product because they believe in the team. That is usually step one as I found, to, to really get those, those teams invested.
[00:26:10] Will Sansbury: They believe in the team and they believe in the story.
[00:26:13] Amber Hansford: Yeah.
[00:26:13] Will Sansbury: Right? I think one of the litmus tests we could apply to this is, think about the teams you work with right now. Are they working to a backlog, or are they working to a story? And a backlog is a necessary way of organizing work. If you’re trying to get that story done, if you’re trying to dent the universe in the parlance of Steve Jobs, it’s not about the JIRA tickets. It’s not about the format of the story it’s about, of the user story, I mean, it’s about, can we make the world better in some way and in doing so of course it makes them money and make us all happy. But. I don’t know, that’s so much more inspiring to me. Maybe it’s, maybe it’s the reason that I’m an English literature grad in the software world, but super exciting to tell a really compelling story and to make the world better, not so exciting to get a project done on time and on budget.
[00:27:05] Amber Hansford: Yeah. Don’t give me a date and then tell me to work backwards on it. I will not be invested. Tell me a story that I can believe in and that I can get behind. And you got my bow, you’ve got my axe. You’ve got my, you know, let me just go a whole Lord of the rings. And…
[00:27:26] Tammy Bulson: And I think those people that are working with us, those people, Will, that you talked about that are motivated and passionate, they want to know how the story ends. They understand the story. They want to build something to shape how it ends. That’s what the passion is all about. How will the story end? And we have a part in creating the ending we want to see.
[00:27:46] Will Sansbury: And just like when you read a great novel, when you want to go tell your friends about it so they can read it too, a great product story will spread like a virus. Probably not a great metaphor for COVID times. We’ll spread like a virus through your team, right? People will get inspired because other people are inspired. In the end it makes the products you produce better and it makes the process of doing it just a lot more fun and a lot more fulfilling.
[00:28:12] Amber Hansford: Well, while I believe that we could probably find our correlations between NaNoWriMo and healthy product teams all night, I do actually need to figure out what I’m writing about this NaNoWriMo. Um, yeah. Uh, as of this recording just a few days before November 1st, I still don’t have a plot, but Hey, I’m going to be a little more pantser than plantser this year, but you all will be joining me, correct?
[00:28:44] Tammy Bulson: Absolutely.
[00:28:45] Will Sansbury: So confession time, I’m five months into a new job. I’m not going to be joining you, but I will be cheering loudly as you write your great stories.
[00:28:54] Amber Hansford: Next year, then. We will.
[00:28:57] Will Sansbury: Next year.
[00:28:57] Amber Hansford: We will get you.
If you guys enjoyed what we have talked about, please, don’t forget to subscribe and rate and review us on any of the podcast platforms that are out there. And if you’re interested in learning more about us and hearing more, or even have a topic that you’d like for us to cover in future episodes, please check us out at productoutsiders.com.
In the meantime, y’all, we’ve got a couple of exciting interviews coming up. We can’t wait to share them with you, but for now, Stay Gold, Outsiders.
[00:30:33] Amber Hansford: Stay Gold.
[00:30:59] Tammy Bulson: Stay Gold.
[00:31:23] Will Sansbury: Stay Gold.