Stone Soup: What it Takes to Be a Great Product Leader

Product Management, Leadership

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Effective product leaders help their team understand the vision behind the plan. What will the product enable customers to do? What problems will it solve? How will its features all fit together?

Once the team understands the vision, your job is (for the most part) to get out of the way so they can execute. It’s good to offer encouragement and provide guidance on customer problems along the way. But ultimately, the best product managers don’t micromanage.

With this context, being a great product leader is in some ways like making stone soup. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the folk story, here’s a recap, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travellers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire.

One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup,” which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup.

Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.
While the tale isn’t a perfect metaphor for product leadership — in the original, the travelers are sometimes portrayed as willfully trying to dupe the villagers, for example — there are some interesting parallels. A few analogies to consider:

The Pot

In the story, the pot represents the boundaries — or guardrails — within which the team operates. As Gokul Rajaram has commented on this blog, “the most important thing you need to do is have guardrails. What you need to tell the team is, here is the set of things. Here is the surface area of all the things we will consider or work on. … But then after that, you really need to let them run.”

The Water

Think of the water as your existing product or the set of features you’ve started working on. As is, the water could solve a need (thirst) but it doesn’t solve the travelers’ main need (hunger). To address the primary problem at hand, the travelers must add to their existing product. Unfortunately, they alone don’t have all the tools or ingredients required to make the soup live up to its full potential.

The Fire

The fire can be thought of as energy — all the blood, sweat and tears that go into building a product. In the story, the travelers must first invest some of their own effort before they’re able to coax others into joining their effort. They gather and pile wood, and add kindling. They light the flame, build it up, and keep the fire going throughout. The lesson? If you want to motivate others, you’ve got to shed some sweat of your own.

The Stone

The stone is what piques the villagers’ curiosity — without it, the travelers would simply be boiling a pot of water. Think of the stone as the first user story or problem statement — it’s a tangible, essential piece for communicating a problem. It’s this manifestation of the product vision, combined with the villagers’ initial efforts, that prompts the villagers to start lending a hand.

The Villagers

The villagers are the team — everyone who plays a part in refining the vision and executing against it. As soon as that second ingredient — that second feature — is added, the composition of the entire pot of water changes. All of a sudden you have a second villager who becomes curious and motivated to help — then a third, and a fourth. Good product leaders excel at cultivating this kind of curiosity and helping others understand the problems they intend to solve.

The Soup

Finally, the soup is the sum of the vision and effort put in by the entire group. It solves the primary problem defined at the outset (the soup is nourishing and delicious) and can be enjoyed by all. In the end, initially skeptical villagers have become fans of stone soup.

Of course, this is an overview of just a few of the characteristics shared by effective product leaders. What’s your recipe? Let us know on Twitter, @thewizeline.

 

Update: After writing and publishing this post, it came to my attention that Rich Mironov has written about an “Stone Soup” approach to leadership. Read his take and follow him on Twitter.

 

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Adam Sewall Posted by Adam Sewall on Wednesday, January 6, 2016.

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Jun 28, 2017

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