Learning Product Management from City Administrators

Two real stories, one long and one short, and an observation on how you can learn product management from city administration.

Story 1: Caring about unmet need

I live in Greater Noida, which very clearly has been designed by people who thought a lot about city planning and had lots of creativity. Roads are very wide (even small streets are 4-6 lanes), Sectors have Greek names (Alpha, Beta,..), and every type of property has a designated location (all schools together, all colleges together, all factories together, all shops together, etc.). Most importantly for this story, the design is such that apartment complexes are very large, and when the connecting lane reaches the nearest main street, you can only turn one way, thanks to the solid concrete and barbed wire dividers which don’t make way for the vehicles (or even people) to go the other side. This is to ensure that the traffic on the road is not slowed down by these vehicles merging at right angle. However, note that these are not heavy-traffic roads.

So if you do have to go to the other side when coming from my complex (see picture above), there are 3 ways to do so:

  1. Take the designated turn to left, go all the way to the end of the road, which in case of my complex (and most other big complexes in Greater Noida), is more than 1 km, take a U turn to come back a km, and then go in the direction you want.
  2. Take the turn towards right, driving in the wrong direction for about 800 m and hope you don’t hit anyone. Given we are in India, this is quite a common option.
  3. Break the divider so that vehicles can go through. Again, we are in India, so this is not a surprising option either!

Based on my observation, I don’t think anyone took #1 ever when they have to go right, everyone took #2. I was doing a variation of #2 by using service road for a part of my wrong direction (service lane was supposed to be 2 way so I was OK for that part). #3 was not an option for a long time. Slowly, however, enterprising people, and 2-wheeler drivers broke through and created space for people and 2 wheelers to go through. Regular use created more space and soon I noticed even autos cross this. In a month or so after this, I saw someone taking their car through and #3 became an option for me. While it was not a risk-free option (barbed wires on the ground sometimes, merging with oncoming traffic while you are at right angle to the traffic), overall, it was a good option for me and many others like me. Very soon, #2 reduced considerably (which made the ride safe while coming home), and #3 went up a lot.

One fine day, I saw some people inspecting the broken divider, and I was happy that they were finally going to make it a proper passage. However, when I came back next morning, I found that the divider has been mended with remarkable speed and consistency, and it was hard to say that there was any passage there, ever!

So we were back to #1 and #2, and sure enough, #2 was the option people chose.

This was about a month back. I see that there have been attempts made to break the divider and while 2-wheelers can’t go through still, at least people can walk across. I think I just have to wait for a few months before option #3 opens for me!

Story 2: Analyzing before fixing

I drive past Jaypee’s Wish Town (using the 6-lane road that go besides their complex) every day on my way to office. Earlier this year, that road was paved with beautiful tar and it was a delight to drive on that. After a few months, cracks started appearing on the road – almost as if there was an earthquake there, and there were many 8-15 ft long cracks (perpendicular to the road) in a 1 km long stretch. They started becoming bigger and very soon it was very irritating to drive over them, though otherwise road was still great. Last month, they apparently fixed it, by putting another beautiful tar coating which was delight to watch, and drive on.

Last week, I noticed that cracks are coming up again, same place, and much bigger than last time, and now they are looking scary to drive on. So much for the beauty of the tar coating!

Observation: Being analytical as a Product Manager

The stories may seem disconnected. What resonated with me was that they unfolded around the same time, at different places in my commute, and they evoked the same feeling in me: here is money wasted on solving the wrong problem!

In the first story, I think the residents voted loud and clear (through their action) that what they need is a passage to the other side and they are willing to be unsafe rather than comply with the proposed option (option #1) from city planners. However, rather than trying to analyze and figure out why that passage was created and whether it suggested an unmet need, the city administration fixed it and put it back to the state it was. In the second one, clearly no one bothered to do any analysis into why the cracks appeared only in some places and whether the proposed solution (re-laying of road) will solve it.

This has an uncanny resemblance to how product managers operate. If we treat the city planner/administrator as a product manager, and good access to the road as a product offered to residents in the area, here is what probably happened: The product manager decided that uninterrupted traffic needs to be ensured on the road and hence didn’t create option #3, expecting everyone to use option #1. When one day it came to his notice that the divider has been broken, he took it as a regular product defect and promptly got it fixed. The fix was done to continue and support original scenarios envisaged by the product manager. In the second case, similar thing would have happened: product manager received a request to fix the road cracks, he promptly proceeded to get it fixed in the most common way – re-lay the road.

In addition to wastage of money, such incidents also alienate product users – it tells them that product manager doesn’t care about their needs.

It is extremely important for a product manager to keep their eyes open to new, unforeseen ways of using the product, and adopt these scenarios for supporting them in next release. The way to do that is to analyze an issue to understand why it comes, and only then attempt to solve it. Time spent in analyzing, understanding and preparing is more valuable for the product than those spent in actually fixing a problem. When a product manager forgets this, or doesn’t find time to do this consistently, this is when the product decays.

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