What we can learn about your product’s maturation, by observing the evolution of a garden through the seasons.
“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.” — Rudyard Kipling
Drawing a comparison between product development and the seasonal evolution of a garden may seem far-fetched and require more abstract thinking than typical business articles, but bear with me. It’s not a novel concept, as indicated by product lifecycle maps (see example below), but hopefully I can show it in a new light.
It implies a few key points to make clear from the start:
- The word ‘seasonal’ is important. It shows we are talking about an extended time frame over which products mature. Great products are not built overnight.
- Like building products, gardening, by its very nature — requires taking action and getting your hands dirty.
- It’s about more than the features i.e. the flora or fauna. Sure, that’s what attracts us, but like gardens, caring for products requires a holistic approach.
- Gardener knowledge, as with product manager knowledge, accrues along the way, building mental muscle from time and experience, successes and failures, season after season.
- Finally, gardens are products. Therefore, gardeners are also product managers. Once you train your mind to think abstractly, you will recognize products are truly everywhere (including yourself), and your sources of motivation, inspiration, and empathy will be unlimited.
Gardens and products both require care to successfully establish and flourish. Care comes in many forms, beginning with design.
When designing a garden, you typically consider:
- The shape of your garden, plus any nearby focal points you want to accentuate.
- How much effort you’re willing to devote to your garden on an ongoing basis; if not much, you’ll choose lower maintenance plants, like perennials (plants that return each year) instead of annuals (plants that only last a year).
- Plants that thrive in your region and natural soil type, plus any soil amendments you might need to make to help your plants grow strong.
- Organizing your plants in a ‘tiered’ structure — tall plants in the back, medium-height plants in the middle, and short plants in the front.
‘Winter’ for a product is the planning cycle. It’s a time to consider:
- For whom are you building this product? (Persona development)
- What does that audience need, want, think, and feel? (Empathy mapping)
- What can you build to meet those needs, and how does that product look and perform? What features does it require? How will your audience interact and what experience are you promising? (Product strategy)
- How will you deliver the product, and what else, besides features, is needed to ensure your product is designed for scalability, usability, and performance? (Roadmap planning)
Read between the lines and you’ll see stark similarities in the design cycles for gardens and products. In ‘winter,’ you’re defining your audience, your goals, and your strategies for achieving them.
Note that ‘winter’ for products, as with gardens, may come in regular cycles. For example, after a major launch or delivery, the ‘winter’ cycle ensues as you plan the next round of features or technical enhancements.
“In ‘winter,’ you’re defining your audience, your goals, and your strategies for achieving them.”
Break out your mud boots and tools and let’s go plant a garden! In spring we set to work and welcome dirt under our fingernails.
- We have to start with a healthy soil, full of organic compounds and the right nutrients for what we’re trying to grow. Till it together, add some earthworms to aerate, and ladybugs on top to manage the aphids and mites. Don’t know what to grow? See ‘winter’ above. If you tried to grow a cactus in wet, soggy peat moss, it would rot. But plant that same cactus in dry, arid soil and watch it thrive.
- Next, we’ll plant some seeds — flowers, herbs, vegetables, and more. Make sure you throw a few pumpkin seeds in there. Then, be patient. Seedlings need time to root. This happens below the surface — invisible to the onlooker but critical to the success of the plant.
- If you planted bulbs in the fall, like daffodils or tulips, they’re starting to appear. They may be beautiful, but don’t be fooled. Daffodils are strong enough to withstand a stiff wind, but one dump of unexpected snowfall and they pinch in half, crushed under the weight.
- Make sure you’re building your product in the right environment for the right audience. Research and test your ideas to prove their merit.
- Define the requirements and user experience that empowers your development team, manufacturer, etc. to build.
- Understand the teams building your product and the systems powering your product, as they will serve as the roots and need to be healthy. Their progress may not be immediately visible, in fact, the underlying systems may never be visible — but they’re still there, anchoring everything.
Finding the right soil composition can be compared to architecting a product or developing effective team dynamics: different chemistry produces different results.
The first evolution of your products may be beautiful but small, like a hyacinth or crocus, or frail, like a daffodil. Celebrate the win, and remember those seeds you planted will soon emerge and bear fruit (or vegetables, etc.).
“The first evolution of your products may be beautiful but small, like a hyacinth or crocus, or frail, like a daffodil. Celebrate the win…”
Go barefoot through the lawn and feel the soft grass under your feet, or sit back and bask in the sun after you water the roses.
- Once they’ve established strong root systems and live in a healthy environment, gardens can often thrive without much intervention, as long as they’re supplied with water, warmth, and sunlight.
- Still, gardens’ human caretakers can maximize a garden’s potential, encouraging it to evolve from small buds to full blooms that shower us with their beauty for days or even weeks.
- Maintaining the landscape is important, including digging into the roots of weeds to remove the whole plant and not just the part we can see.
- More importantly, a gardener can admire the ecosystem that develops, such as pollinating insects, birds, plants, animals, micro-organisms, and soil.
- After the product matures from its first iterations and is in a stable, adopted state, it may be self-sustaining to a point.
- However, product managers can still evolve it further, helping it reach its fullest potential and extending its life. For example, evaluating how users interact with it can open your eyes to improvements users may not think to ask for.
- Monitor your product’s performance and optimize it across the board — from development efficiency and operations, to sales and marketing, to the customer adoption process and ease of use.
Maintaining your garden (or product) should be easier than establishing it, but beware of thorns on those roses in summer. Be ready to lose a plants along the way to hungry deer, rabbits, insects, or to other natural causes.
Product losses could be to competitors, unadopted features, budget cuts, etc. The key in both situations is learning how to prevent those losses and protect the product’s integrity despite external forces.
“Maintaining your garden (or product) should be easier than establishing it, but beware of thorns on those roses in summer.”
Fall is time for harvesting all you grew, whether it be giant pumpkins or an electrifying product.
- The perennial mums are blooming and those pumpkins you planted from seed are ready for harvest. Maybe one will even twinkle with magic, carrying us through the winter.
- The weather is changing and even the squirrels know it’s time to store away the acorns dropping from oak trees.
- Mature products have discovered their markets, hit their strides, and are striving to maintain it for as long as possible before the eventual downturn, usually caused by innovative disruption.
Harvest is a time of bounty — products are meeting their max adoption and profit potential, pumpkins are ready to take over every doorstep… but not to the point where they terrorize the populace. Get where I’m going with this? Think: scary Halloween movies, akin to user data harvesting.
As long as the product is being used for good, it’s in service of us all. For example, think of all the beautiful things humans can make when they harvest pumpkins: creative carvings, pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream, and pumpkin spice lattes, cold brew, waffles, muffins and breads, soup, the list goes on! That’s right. I’m well aware I am the exact target persona for pumpkin spice […insert anything].
“As long as the product is being used for good, it is in service of us all.”
Like gardens, building products requires the patience to design, cultivate, and iterate before the harvest.
Use your imagination and find your Zen while producing something beautiful, and keep in mind, our products are as fleeting as our gardens — changing with the seasons, eventually to be replaced. But if you build it well, hopefully it won’t be forgotten.
Finally — remember that while the ‘Jones’s’ next door might be competing with you to produce the ultimate garden, halfway around the world in a place you’ve never even heard of — yet — there are surely gardens ready to disrupt everything you know about the way things work today. In product, look farther than left and right at your immediate competitors. Look up, down, and side to side.
“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”
— May Sarton
Kim is a Deep Tech Product leader who has led digital products for businesses (B-2-B) and consumers (B-2-C) for a decade. Gardening also runs in her family and she loves being in the yard (avoiding poison ivy). The postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.