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!

Quest for Friction Less Experiences

Yesterday, I got to experience the WhatsApp payment flows. It surely felt like a neat friction-less experience both for adding/mapping bank accounts and for in-chat payments.

And in my excitement I forwarded it to a friend who didn’t have any UPI handle so far. And I was surprised by the reaction.

How does WhatsApp know my bank account ??!! 

Payment friction

And frankly I had looked at it the other way round – they are showing me the specific account that I want to associate here.

And this got me thinking about friction in digital consumer experiences.

I remembered my Amazon experience.

I have recently changed my laptop and phone and each time I logged into my Amazon account from a new device/browser I got a security challenge. I had to enter a security code that was sent on my email.

Friction during logging in

This is inspite of me authenticating myself using my Amazon credentials –  login id & password.

So why the additional step?  Why add to the friction of logging in?


  • Its a friction-less way of doing XYZ !
  • We have drastically reduced the friction in each transaction
  • Our platform provides the most friction less experience for ABC

Am sure like me, you keep hearing how every venture and corporate is focused on reducing friction and there by making it a significantly better experience for their consumers/stakeholders etc.

And I get it.

If I almost always use an offers platform to look for offers near me on a mobile app, it should not ask me to choose a city, then location etc – it should just pick my location and show me the offers. I get it.

Similarly, if my online or in-app payment process need an OTP and there is a way to automatically read the OTP rather than needing me to toggle from the merchant app to the messaging app and back. It is definitely so much cooler and easier.

BUT, ALL FRICTION IS NOT BAD

What I don’t get is how suddenly friction has become such a bad thing.

Way back in my school days, we were taught in Physics that while friction caused wear and tear, it also was the main reason wheels work – friction prevents slippage and aids rotation. Snow chains for tyres – aid driver confidence by increased traction (apart from helping break the top ice layer).

My current thinking on friction less experiences is as follows:

  • All consumers are not same. What is a great experience for some may be a concern for others (elevators vs escalators) . Hence it may be best to have varying levels of friction available for consumers.
  • Friction can help build consumer confidence – esp amongst users concerned about security
  • It may be useful in the on-boarding or early days of consumer-product relationship. As confidence builds, some more steps can be reduced. Like this recent experience where my Credit Card limit enhancement was pitched and delivered at the optimal moment.
  • Friction is also an industry level phenomenon. As an industry matures and consumer confidence builds, need for a faster, smoother way to do the same old task would become stronger.

What do you think?

Good rules should be designed for higher adoption

How do we drive adoption for rules in a community, or even at a country level ?

Should a good rule be designed to make it easily enforceable too?

I think it should be.

If we want to build a society where most follow the rules, enforceability should be an important criteria.

To decide whether a new rule should be introduced or not. Whether an existing rule needs to be modified or scrapped.

Why?

It is my belief, that when we have rules that can be easily broken without any consequences, it sends a signal to the community. And this signal usually leads to a gradual loss of respect for the law of the land and for the fellow citizens. Read the explanation of the Broken Windows Theory

Effective rules implementation

Let me explain with an example of two rules, which most of us in India are familiar with

  • Front seat passengers should wear seat belts while traveling in a car
  • All vehicles should have a valid pollution-under-control (PUC) certificate

While both these were introduced in the last 20 years or so in NCR, the first one has seen significant levels of adoption whereas we all know that very few cars and bikes have a valid PUC certificate.

Why?

If you ask me, the reason is very simple.

For seat-belts, the fact that you are complying (or not) is visible each and every time you are driving. Any traffic-cop who sees you not wearing the seat belt can pull you over and issue a challan. So you run a very high risk of being punished if you are out on the road w/o wearing your seat belts.

Contrast this with the pollution certificate rule.

A traffic cop on the road has no clue if your vehicle currently has a valid PUC certificate or not. Hence the cop would rarely pull you aside asking for the certificate. It is usually asked for when you have already been stopped for some reason and they feel that they might put more pressure on you if you are w/o the PUC. Hence as car owners, we are usually not very afraid to drive w/o this certificate. The risk is just too low. And hence very few cars actually have a valid PUC certificate.

So while almost everyone knows that the laws need them to drive a non-polluting vehicle, very few actually end up doing so.

And I think its very simply just the issue of how easily the rule can be enforced.

In my opinion we should have few rules, but all should be enforced strictly.

What do you think?

Public policy, ripple effects and feedback loops

I have always been intrigued by product design and by extension policy design (& implementation). If the government were to look at itself as a start-up technology venture, the policies, schemes and guidelines issued by the government would possibly be the “products” of this venture.

And like any good product manager, one should study not just the immediate impact of change(s) in product design but also the delayed and maybe stickier changes in consumer behaviour.

And that is what I want to share with you today.

Shift in dietary habits due to Green Revolution

Sometime last month, I was visiting an uncle of mine – someone who is in his mid 70s, reasonably fit, exercises regularly and has borderline diabetes. While we sat at the lunch table, I noticed that he had multiple other grains in his roti as against mine which was from just wheat atta. It seems most physicians recommend adding ragi, chana etc in your atta mix as a healthier alternative.

And that’s how our conversation began.

Wheat Green Revolution

And what came out was quite surprising for me.

It seems in their childhood days in villages of western U.P., wheat was not the staple grain. Infact it was considered a delicacy and wheat-chapattis were made when they had guests over. And he comes from a well-to-do farmer family. This was not because of economic constraints, it was just how things were.

So as the elders started talking about this significant shift in probably the most important component in a typical North-Indian meal – roti – what emerged was that the shift was triggered by the Green Revolution in all probability.

This lunch group which included scientists and government employees, agreed to the following sequence of events:

  • Wheat was one of the chosen candidates for green revolution . Though am very curious to find out why?
  • Government stepped in on the supply side with higher yield varieties, irrigation support etc
  • It also created artificial demand by setting up floor prices thus encouraging farmers to grow wheat. Making wheat a critical component of Public Distribution System also ensured a big buyer for wheat at these prices. This in turn ensured that a higher percentage of land under cultivation now got sowed with wheat
  • This brought the otherwise-considered-premium grain into the middle-class households at a very affordable price. Imagine if suddenly, you find yourself able to afford an item which for years or maybe generations was considered premium, chances are you will buy more of it to feel good (my assumption)
  • And they all started eating wheat more, skewing our diet heavily towards this singular grain in North India.
  • And the subsequent generation(s) like ours has come to believe that our rotis have always been a wheat-only product. Coz wheat rotis is what we ever saw.

Am also very clear that India’s self-reliance on nutrition has been contributed heavily by progress on wheat and rice. So there’s no doubt that this has worked as planned.

The fact that wheat may not be the healthiest grain is probably something new. Gluten intolerance was probably unheard of during the Green Revolution.

But with the new facts before us, should the government re-evaluate its focus on just a handful of grains in its policies.

What if, the support prices on wheat are relaxed a bit? What if other “healthier” grains are encouraged similarly? Will the cost of managing supply chains and warehousing for multiple grains offset the advantages of a wider-spread in our diet?

Many questions and I don’t have any answers.

Low availability of fodder for cattle

Ask any elder who has seen standing wheat crop in the fields now-a-days vs in the old days. One thing they would tell you is that the wheat crop is now stunted. Its much much shorter.

This am told, was probably one of the biggest breakthrough in developing High-Yield-Varieties. The nutrients and water is no longer “wasted” in the growth of the non-grain-yielding parts of the crop.

But on the flip side – this has increased the cost of cattle-management for local farmers. Why?

There just isn’t enough fresh fodder for the cattle. The non-grain part of the wheat crop was used as fresh and dried fodder for the cattle that the farmer had at home. This is gone.

As my friend (who runs a dairy farm) tells me, procuring fodder is now a big challenge in most regions.


I am not an economist or an agriculture scientist and probably have understood just a very small part of the whole picture here.

But I learnt few important lessons from this lunch conversation :

  1. There are usually multiple ripple-effects of any new policy change ( or product change)
  2. While the product may deliver on the core metrics initially identified as measurements of success, we should zoom-out and ask ourselves, what else has changed
  3. I should start eating healthier. Right now  🙂

Easier to be Krishna than to be Arjun

The other day, my mom shared a powerful and thought-provoking quote, that she has just read.

It’s easier to be Krishna, than to be Arjun !!

And she went on to explain, that being Krishna requires one to look inside and discover the highest qualities that each of us are bestowed with.

But to be an Arjun, one needs to be full of faith.

Infact have so much faith and trust, that you see a Guru in your friend, who then becomes the Krishna in your life.

Krishna Arjuna

Its a very powerful thought.

To be able to trust someone or something so much, must infact be very liberating.

Coz then you surrender all your worries, doubts and fears.

I guess that’s why our ancient traditions laid so much importance on the role of a Guru.

And its definitely true in our corporate lives too.

We all need mentors.

And for mentors to be effective, one has to let go of all fears, doubts and insecurities and share what we truly feel. Open up to our mentors. And most importantly, surrender.