Factory and Lab mindsets in product management teams

Factories and laboratories evoke very different images.

With a factory – I am usually thinking the industrial revolution in all its glory – machines, assembly lines, robots, workers, all working in a disciplined and predictable manner – churning out products that are all identical and meet the claimed specifications. Low room for error. Designed for scale.

On the other hand, when I think of a lab – I usually come up with a white coat wearing team of specialists pouring over data. Going deeper into a topic. Asking fundamental questions. Pushing boundaries. New ideas being discussed and prototyped.

While I know these are extremely simplified and probably exaggerated views, they are helpful in defining what I call as the Factory Mindset and the Lab Mindset. So bear with me.

The Factory and Lab Mindset

The Factory mindset or culture is where the blueprint has been validated and chosen for at scale business. Think of this as the mindset needed to to do more of the same thing at the right cost, quality – a highly process oriented approach.

And this is relevant in the service sector too. Think of a bank branch, or the claims underwriting team of an insurance co. The rule book, processes, roles and responsibilities are all clearly laid out. Thereby ensuring that customer after customer can be duly served.

The Lab mindset is what triggers change and innovation. It requires the ability to challenge the status quo. To ask fundamental questions, build hypotheses. Be bold enough to experiment with some of those hypotheses. And be ready to fail.

Need for both mindsets to co-exist

In today’s fast changing business environment, its imperative to nurture both these mindsets/cultures concurrently. More so within the product team(s) at consumer/enterprise technology companies.

And it’s tough !

In any multi-product organization, chances are that the products are at various stages of their lifecycle. Some might be in a MVP or Pre-commercialization stage, while (hopefully) most are on a scale-up path in the commercialization stage and few others may be close to the end of their life cycle.

Sarah is a product manager focused on an early stage product. She needs to be like a scientist – doing experiments, tracking whats working and what’s not and getting the product to evolve rapidly. More importantly her manager needs to guide, motivate and evaluate like a senior scientist would. The Lab mindset needs to prevail.

Contrast this with Peter, who’s product contributes to almost 15% of all revenues. A big part of his job is to keep the commercialization machinery humming. From updating pitch decks, to reviewing the pricing model, understanding the sales pipeline – its a very different role he plays. He also does some of what Sarah does full-time. Peter needs to have a close pulse of the market – understand the current pain-points, evolving consumer needs and build or modify features/functionalities to keep the product relevant.

This ability to toggle across the Factory and the Lab mindsets is critical for organizations and individuals to keep innovating, evolving and staying relevant while still growing.

Do you agree?

If you do, how do you think organizations should be designed to nurture this co-existence of seemingly different cultures and mindsets? Share how your organization does it well already. Because I feel this is more fundamental than just having different kinds of performance metrics depending on the stage of the product.

If you have found a way to do this well at your individual level please do share.

Going back to the earlier visualizations, isn’t it hard to imagine a lab-coat wearing nerdie walking around the factory floor? I remember from my engineering summer internship – the R&D deptt was in an air-conditioned separate section of the plant. The deptt infact had its own assembly line to make shock-absorbers!