Writing things down

Getting to the crux of our own ideas

The Snippet is a Weekly Product Management Newsletter for aspiring Product Leaders.

At some point in your respective product management journeys, you’ll most likely come across the term “working backwards”. Amazon’s famous Product Management philosophy.

Working Backwards posits that when thinking about what product to develop— one must work backward from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. If you are building products in 2021, this is textbook advice.

I’ve never worked for Amazon, but based on what people tell me, Here’s how it roughly works.

To test a new product concept/idea, Amazon PMs write an internal press release announcing the (hypothetical) finished product — The PM lists down the bullets, articulating the benefits as they perceive them, and sends the press release to customers (internal/external). Based on customer feedback, PM iterates on the press release until there is some amount of validation on what customers might think of such a product.

Writing Things down Forces clarity

The press release is a very interesting concept, and for multiple reasons.

First, it’s sort of a sniff test for the PM to see if their concept/ idea, as it stands, holds water.

But more importantly, it helps the PM internalize what their idea really is.

Writing the press release enables the PM to refine and simplify the idea further for external consumption such that anybody can understand the value proposition being pitched. Another such technique is writing marketing copy or creating a landing page for your product idea.

Personally, I like the landing page/marketing copy method much better as it really helps you see how things might look from a customer’s lens as if it were a real product. Adding simple imagery alongside your idea gives it yet another dimension— your ideas get a form and a feel.

But why does writing things down whether a press release or marketing copy helps us understand our own ideas better? To understand this, let’s take a quick (but relevant) detour.

Our incredible brains

We all get a ton of ideas every day, whether we like it or not. Our brain is constantly forming connections & associations, thereby creating a worldview as we experience life. In his book “Thinking Fast & Slow” Daniel Kahneman calls this the brain in System 1 mode. The brain does this automatically, involuntarily, and quickly with little effort or cognitive load.

System 1 is also how the brain forms ideas. It’s an intuitive system and you cannot turn it off— you hardly have any voluntary control over it. And by the way, our brains do it for good reason —to recognize friends, identify threats, generate intuitions, and feelings, and many more things that make us human.

But there is a downside to all this system 1 thinking. It makes us susceptible to biases and logical fallacies. For instance, consider this syllogism from Kahneman’s book.

  1. All roses are flowers.

  2. Some flowers fade quickly.

  3. Therefore, some roses fade quickly.

The inference (statement #3) looks quite logical at first glance, isn’t it? Most of us have probably seen a rose that’s fading. But this is simply our system 1 brain wanting to jump to conclusions. The inference statement is actually NOT accurate.

A quick and simple Venn diagram will tell you why

As you can see from the 2nd figure when you think about it logically - all roses are indeed flowers, but only some flowers fade quickly. And it’s entirely possible that roses do not belong to the group of flowers that fade quickly. so inference #3 doesn’t always hold.

Here’s what happened. As you thought through this syllogism, you switched from System 1 brain—and engaged what Dr. Kahneman calls — your SYSTEM 2 brain.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

System 2 helps us analyze complex problems, do math, crossword puzzles, and of course analyze syllogisms amongst many other things. As you might have guessed, engaging system 2 requires a considerable amount of energy.

Needless to say, we need both these systems to function at our peak performance. If you are curious to learn more about Kahneman’s work — You can buy & read Kahneman’s book here or a quick summary here.

Writing engages your System 2 brain

People who build and manage products constantly get product and feature ideas. By default, this happens in System 1 mode, where an idea pops up because you come across evidence that’s readily available and is easy to process for the brain — but your system 1 brain can often fail to ask: Is there competing evidence out there that might negate the inference I just made?

While tremendously efficient otherwise, System 1 micro failures such as these can lead a PM to draw conclusions based on the readily available but potentially misleading information and half-truths.

At other times, System 1 thinking might lead the PM to conjure up ideas that seem incredible in their minds, but that may be too big to tackle, too complicated, or simply undoable in reality.

This is where you should intentionally engage your System 2 brain.

System 2 thinking engages and pieces together the multifarious splinters of thoughts and ideas into a coherent message. It helps you analyze your own biases, validate your own assumptions, question your own beliefs and look at information objectively. Sure, it takes effort, but it’s well worth it.

When you turn your idea into a press release and iterate on it, or create a landing page with marketing copy outlining the idea, you are diving into your thoughts in much greater detail. You are trying to boil your idea down to its crux such that it’s easy to understand & communicate whilst still retaining its core message.

With System 2 you are ratcheting up the signal to noise ratio— all the while improving the odds that you are working on, not just any idea— but the right idea.

I hope you enjoyed this post. You can follow me on Twitter where I share learnings on managing and building products.

👋 Thanks for reading!


The Snippet is a Weekly Product Management Newsletter for aspiring Product Leaders.