The Line of Chaos

The “Line of Chaos” is a concept that good product managers will not just understand, but will embrace with vigor.

First, let’s start with what it is. It is an imaginary line that serves to illustrate the interface between business and technology. Why does that interface matter? It matters because business people and engineers are fundamentally different.

Recall the post by Paul Graham about Makers vs. Managers. Business people, especially sales people, thrive on selling, meetings, making clients happy, reacting to the client or market, the (not so) occasional fire-drill, and often just raw activity. They are interrupt-driven. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m so busy! Look at all the meetings I have on my calendar.” They frequently switch context. They lie in the now. It is often fluid, reactive, and, well, chaotic.

Engineers (I’d include designers in this too) thrive on long blocks of deep thinking to solve problems. Output should be the measure of productivity for engineers, not the activity or the lines of code. In fact, time to think, not code, may result in the best output (a scalable design or elegant feature, for instance).

None of this is controversial. The thing that isn’t mentioned in the PG article is how those two different worlds can work together to great effect. This is where product managers step in. They are responsible for defending the engineers from the chaos. In some ways, they are responsible for saving the business people from their own chaos (even if they might not know it at the time). PMs are the keepers of the Line. Good PMs will fight to the death to ensure that the Line does not penetrate the engineering team.

The keeping of the Line of Chaos takes many forms for a PM. Prioritization. Stakeholder management. Feature benefit analysis. MVPs. Product strategy. At the end of the day, these and other common principles of product management are just tools to fight back the Line of Chaos.

This is not to say that the Chaos does not serve a purpose. It does. Great ideas often emerge from the chaos. But, even then, the idea is going to need some help to get presented to the engineers in a way that puts them in a position to be successful.

Great product managers are hard to find. There aren’t a lot of people who can both operate in the chaos, while simultaneously fighting it.

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