Digesting Chesky’s playbook

Several months ago, Brian Chesky took the stage at Config and described how the product management role has shifted towards product marketing at Airbnb, causing a flurry of blog posts, opinion pieces, and guides for transitioning your role.

He recently came on Lenny’s podcast to talk more about the shift. I listened to Brian’s “new playbook” twice and wanted to organize my thoughts. In short, I don’t think it’s as radical a transition as everyone is imagining. And, I think it makes quite a bit of sense!

Here’s the main thread I’ll pull on:

…we combined what one might call the inbound product development responsibilities of product manager with the outbound or marketing responsibilities of product marketing…The second thing we did is we off-boarded much of the program management functions to actual program managers…The last thing we did is we made the group smaller and more senior.

There’s a lot to unpack! First, here’s how I think about the phases of the product process:

  1. Strategy: What are we building and why? What’s our hypothesis?
  2. Execution: How do we ship the idea?
  3. Delivery: How will customers find out about it?
  4. Analysis: Does the usage validate or disprove our hypothesis?

This is a loop. You use the analysis to then update your strategy, which further shapes future iterations. It’s a variation on the Deming Cycle, but I often think of it as a “heartbeat.” Everything else being equal, going through this loop faster and more frequently delivers better products.

Chesky talks about two areas within this loop.

First, delivery. I’d guess that in many orgs, product builds and marketing delivers. Said differently, PMs are responsible for deciding what to build and why; marketing packages it for customers. Chesky is involving PMs intimately in the delivery:

You can’t build a product unless you know how to talk about the product. You can’t be an expert in making the product unless you’re also an expert in the market of it.

I think this is directionally accurate! The delivery aspect of the loop gets far less attention than strategy and execution, but it’s just (if not more!) crucial. Product managers should be able to answer, “What are we building and why?” along with, “What’s the story we’re telling to customers?”

This push is helpful in shipping features, but broadly, I think it helps product managers build an understanding of the market that compounds over time. Justin Jackson likens this to “being in the water.” You might call it intuition or product sense. Either way, it’s built by deeply understanding the space you’re working in. Here’s Chesky again, emphasis mine:

I think that teams should use data, but they should also use research and intuition. There’s a designer called Charles Eames that said you can’t delegate understanding. If you’re going to do AB experiments or measure data, you have to understand what it means. I think that you have to have an intuition. Intuition comes not from arbitrariness, it comes from understanding.

Second, he mentioned offloading much of the program management from product managers.

Reflecting back on the heartbeat loop above, there’s typically multiple heartbeats going on at once across the company. This is particularly true at Airbnb where all features roll up to two big launches throughout the year. When you have multiple heartbeats, you need two types of execution. One type of execution is vertical—how do we take this strategy and execute on it within our product? The second type is horizontal—how does this this thing align with that over there?

These are distinct skills. Most product managers can juggle horizontal and vertical execution, and as Chesky notes, they should have a great grasp on what’s going on across the organization. But, by delineating the two, I’d assume you get better performance. This idea of horizontal versus vertical execution is also a newer idea for me; my thinking will evolve over time!

On his last point—shrinking the group and making it more senior—I don’t have a ton to add. I will say this resonates with my experience:

There’s a great saying that the best way to slow a project down is add more people to it.

In short, product management isn’t going anywhere. There’s still a need to think holistically about what we’re building and how we’re packaging it for customers. If nothing else, Chesky’s playbook is a push to also think about positioning and the market in addition to strategy, execution, and analysis. I think that’s a good push overall!

He separately talked on the podcast at length about org design, planning cycles, and more. Thoughts on that another time!

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