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113 / Embracing Human Complexity in Product Management, with Matt LeMay

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel




Matt LeMay

Sudden Compass

Matt LeMay is an internationally recognized product leader, author, and consultant. He is the author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice. Matt has helped build and scale product management practices at companies ranging from early-stage startups to Fortune 500 enterprises. He is the co-founder and partner at Sudden Compass, a consultancy that has helped organizations like Spotify, Google, Clorox, and Procter & Gamble put customer-centricity into practice. Previously, Matt worked as Senior Product Manager at music startup Songza (acquired by Google), and as Head of Consumer Product at Bitly. He lives in London, England.

The myth of product management is that human complexity can be reduced to a manageable framework, one that lets us show up for work feeling confident and comfortable and ready to take on the world. Not so fast, says Matt LeMay, internationally recognized product leader, consultant, and author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice, 2d.

“There are a lot of people who really want to cling to this notion that there’s a single right way to do product management,” Matt continues, “and that once all the messy human complexity disappears you’ll be guaranteed success.”

Matt LeMay recalls his early days as a product manager, initially believing that some secret knowledge would magically transform his complex role into a series of straightforward tasks. Over time, he realized that success requires product managers to be constantly listening, learning, and adapting their practices.

“When I see product managers failing, it’s not because they lack some specific competency, but rather because they’ve become entrenched,” Matt adds. “They are defending some particular position rather than opening themselves up to changing their own position.”

Humility, he adds, emerges as a crucial trait for all product leaders. “It’s the only way I feel confident doing my work because I know there’re a lot of folks who know things that I don’t know, have learned things I haven’t.” Coupled with a healthy dose of intuition, we can protect ourselves from an over-reliance on select pieces of quantitative data.

Good product management is hard work that embraces human complexity. It doesn’t try to reduce it into tiny little data points armed with magical powers.

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Sean [00:00:43] Paul, how’s your morning?

Paul [00:00:44] Outstanding, Sean. How are you?

Sean [00:00:46] I am well. Super excited about this episode with Matt LeMay and all the value that the audience is going to get out of it.

Paul [00:00:52] It resonated with me a ton. He hit on a lot of the notes that I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m really excited to hear him unpack a lot of complex detail or leave it complex if it doesn’t need to be reduced.

Sean [00:01:02] Matt’s a master of taking some of these complex product management issues that we deal with every day and really simplifying them in language that helps us to understand why they need to be complex, why we need to think them through, why we need to experiment. It was a brilliant podcast.

Paul [00:01:15] Let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:16] Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:20] Well hello and welcome to the show. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Matt LeMay. Matt is an internationally recognized product leader, author, and consultant. He’s the author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice. He’s helped build and scale product management practices at companies ranging from early-stage startups to Fortune 500 enterprises. Matt’s the co-founder and partner at Sun Compass, a consultancy that’s helped organizations like Spotify, Google, Clorox, and Procter & Gamble put customer centricity into practice. Previously, Matt worked as a Senior Product Manager at music startup Songza, acquired by Google and as Head of Consumer Products at Bitly. He lives in London, England. Matt, welcome to the show.

Matt [00:01:56] Thanks so much for having me.

Paul [00:01:58] Absolutely. To kick things off, I’d love to share a bit of your background and experiences that your perspectives are flavored by. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences working as a product manager at Bitly and consulting with companies like Spotify? How have you seen that role, the title Product Manager, evolve over the years?

Matt [00:02:16] Yeah, that’s a great question. I think when I started out at Bitly, I had no idea what a product manager was or what I was doing. By the time I started consulting, I still had no idea, but I was much more comfortable with having no idea. Which is to say, I think that when I started, I believed that somewhere out there existed this secret knowledge that once you possessed it made product management simple and straightforward work, that if you knew the right frameworks, if you knew the right tools, you could produce the human complexity of product management into something manageable and show up to work every day feeling confident and comfortable and ready to take on the world.

Matt [00:02:56] The longer I’ve done this for, the more I embrace and acknowledge that the human complexity of product management can never really be reduced that much. You’re dealing with people, both your colleagues and your customers. You are always going to be learning new things. There are always going to be new challenges. And the second you think you’ve got it all figured out is the second you stop being good at the job. So I think that for myself, I’ve very much been on a journey of going from being frustrated with myself that I did not possess this secret knowledge to recognizing that there is no such secret knowledge, that so much of this role is about learning and listening and constantly evolving your own practice.

Matt [00:03:39] And I like to think that the world at large is coming around to that as well. I think, you know, as much as it was a painful process for me, I think it was a more painful process for the world at large and the product management world, because there are a lot of people who really, really want to cling to this notion that there is a single right way to do product management and that if you hire product managers from a certain set of companies or use a certain set of frameworks, that all of that messy human complexity will disappear and you will be guaranteed success.

Matt [00:04:13] Unfortunately, I think there are people, both product managers and consultants, who are also selling the idea that if you only do things a certain way, you are guaranteed to succeed rather than the reality, which is the need to, again, be very open and patient and learn and listen. So I think the longer we’ve been around this discipline and the more cycles of hope and disappointment folks have been through, the more folks are inextricably led to the same conclusion that I’ve been led to in my work.

Sean [00:04:46] Yeah, there’s no operating manual.

Matt [00:04:48] No.

Sean [00:04:48] If there was, we’d all be building the exact same things and following the exact same process. It just doesn’t work that way. There’s too much creativity that’s required to build really great things in the world that are different.

Matt [00:04:57] Exactly.

Sean [00:04:58] I always say that in this domain of product development, you’ve got a bunch of really smart people, let’s call them executives, coordinating the spending of capital to hire a bunch of really smart people, we’re talking about graphic designers, software architects, like they know the technology inside and out, to build this thing in the world that we’re going to put out into the market for other people to use, that most of whom we’ll never meet. There’s a lot of human minds involved in that whole ecosystem. And if we think there’s a manual, we’re already setting ourselves up for disappointment. So your bubble was burst. You thought there is a magic formula and you’ve come to this place where you realize there isn’t one. So what do we do now?

Matt [00:05:37] Well, it’s funny because, you know, still sometimes people be like, “oh, I have this framework.” And I’m like, “Maybe that’s it!” I think it’s really hard for me to get over the idea that there is a single framework. I think as a person who is generally inclined to self-doubt, I still have moments where it’s like, “oh, you just haven’t tried this framework.” I’m like, “Maybe you’re right; maybe there is some secret framework that we just haven’t encountered yet; once I try that out…” But again, I keep learning it the hard way.

Matt [00:06:01] I think, again, the only way forward is to listen and change and be humble. In Agile for Everybody, I interviewed a guy called Jeff Cass, who runs a textile manufacturing company in Seattle, and I was told, “You got to talk to this guy, he’s profitably running a textile manufacturer in the US, which everyone said is impossible; he’s using all these Agile and Lean methods.” And I was like, “Oh, finally I’m going to find out what the secret is.” So I called him and I said, okay, Jeff, what’s the secret?” Finally, I’m going to find out what the big Agile secret is. He said, “The secret is really having the emotional fortitude for continuous improvement.” He said, “The thing that people don’t tell you about continuous improvement is it means continuously admitting to mistakes and continuously looking your team in the eye and saying, ‘I harmed you; I didn’t do as well as I could have,’ I made mistakes that caused material harm to people who look to me for their livelihoods and for their support. And nobody really prepares you for just how difficult that is to continuously acknowledge your mistakes and continuously open yourself up to new ways of working that you might not be familiar with, that you might not be an expert in.”

Matt [00:07:14] And I think about that all the time in my work, that so much of what it comes down to is, “Am I prepared to be wrong? Am I prepared to not have the right answer? And I prepared to humble myself and really listen to people and not be the person who solves every problem? Am I prepared to let those problems change and grow? Am I prepared to listen to folks?” You know, for me as a consultant, people say, “Well, you must know how to solve this problem.” A lot of times, I say, “I have no idea; like, I can help facilitate your team to solving this problem together; I can help you design some constraints that might be useful; I can help provide feedback; I can listen and share with you the things I’ve experienced in the past that might help accelerate you to a solution that will be useful to you, but you’re going to know your customer better than I am, you’re going to know your product better than I am.”

Matt [00:08:02] Again, trusting local knowledge, trusting the people who are closest to the customer, trusting the people who have been working on the product for a while who might be kind of set in their ways but also know a lot. Really humbling yourself to that is the only way I feel confident doing my work at this point because I know that there’s going to be folks who know things that I don’t know, learned things that I haven’t learned. And on my best days, and I’m so grateful to get to learn from them, and on my worst days, I feel completely useless.

Sean [00:08:31] I love that you opened this door around humility, which I think is a critical, critical skill for any high-powered team.

Matt [00:08:38] Oh, yeah.

Sean [00:08:39] So understanding how complex the things we’re building requires a deep set of skills and a lot of other people that all have parts of the answer. None of us have the whole answer, right?

Matt [00:08:51] Exactly.

Sean [00:08:52] There’s this quote from C.S. Lewis that I love about humility. It’s like, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” And I think just having that sort of overarching principle to operate on for your teams as a product manager, that, like, what we’re doing here is about shared gratitude and shared competence. Like, we need each other to really build the best possible thing and we should be asking good questions and really setting our environment up for maximizing that form of humility that you’re talking about. I think it’s really valuable.

Matt [00:09:24] I like that. I think you touched on something really important there as well, which is that self-deprecation and defensiveness in general is really dangerous for product managers because it is centering yourself, right? As you said, even if you are thinking less of yourself, you are not thinking of yourself less. And one of the hardest lessons I had to learn, I relied a lot on self-deprecation early in my career. I got really defensive really easily. I felt like my job was to defend my team, to defend my decisions, to defend the roadmap, to defend the backlog. And eventually, I came to the difficult realization that I had harmed everything I sought to defend. That in my quest to defend my team, I had actually isolated my team from the business at large and customers. In my attempts to defend my decisions, I had closed myself off from vital information that would have made those decisions better. In my attempts to defend the roadmap and the backlog, I had again stopped us from actually learning things that would lead to better outcomes on a team level.

Matt [00:10:19] So I often tell folks in product that defensiveness is what really drives ineffective product management much more than incompetence. Nine times out of ten, when I see product managers failing, it’s not because they lack some specific competency, but rather because they become entrenched. They are defending some particular position rather than opening themselves up to changing their own position. They are prioritizing what they see as their own position within the company, rather than looking at what their team’s success means, and saying, “How best do I support our collective goals as a team?” And not to get too far into it right now, but in a lot of cases, I feel like we interview for the exact opposite of that.

Paul [00:10:56] That is well said. There’s a lot to unpack there. I think one of the things that I’m taking away is often when a gaggle of product managers gets together, you know, it turns into a bit of a therapy session, and the imposter syndrome, that phrase becomes used often to describe how product managers feel. And humility, I think, can be an antidote. It might not be the antidote, but it can be an antidote for that imposter syndrome feeling. One of the other themes that comes through really strongly in your writing in addition to humility, is intuition and not becoming overreliant on the quantitative, data-driven Net Promoter Score. And you unpack really well, I think, a lot of the things that we know intrinsically to be true but don’t often have a pie chart or a histogram to back up what goes into it. And I think teaching product managers how to trust their intuition more can be a tool in the toolbox. It can help a lot of the anxiety around the quant and data centricity that pervades a lot of product management thinking right now.

Matt [00:11:54] I like to think so. I mean, I think, you know, if you look at something like Net Promoter Score, right, you are essentially summarizing very complex things. You’re looking at this behavior of recommendation, which is an incredibly complex behavior, right? I might be very selective about who I recommend to. I might recommend one thing to one person because I know them really well and one thing to another person because I know them really well. You know, recommendations are a rich, complex human behavior. In order for us to summarize a lot of data points, we have to reduce complexity. We have to reduce fidelity in order to achieve scale. That’s a decision we make.

Matt [00:12:29] But I feel like in a lot of cases when we trim those into proprietary scores like Net Promoter, we sort of give them magical powers rather than saying, “Yeah, we have greatly reduced complexity in order to have a very low fidelity overview.” That overview is useful sometimes, but it still kind of baffles me that if we obfuscate things just enough in just a proprietary and magical-seeming enough of a way that suddenly it feels like this number becomes unimpeachable, that it’s become this sacred, magical thing rather than just one fairly consistently applied way of reducing complexity to achieve scale. Which, you know, Net Promoter is one, there are other ones, and sometimes that’s really useful. Sometimes you do want to get a trend overall, but for anything more than a trend, for really looking at the complexity of why and how human behaviors play out, you can’t rely on a low-fidelity, high-scale summary.

Matt [00:13:27] And again, I think that a lot of the attempts to market and make
proprietary these things are trying to sell you the idea that you can reduce that complexity, that, you know, Net Promoter was introduced in an HBR article that said ‘the one number you need for growth,’ which is absurd, that’s just an absurd statement to make. But people believe it because wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow these five magical steps and not have to talk to people? Ew, people, people are complicated and messy, and talking to our customers means we might be disappointed, we might be confused, we might get multiple signals that seem to be in conflict with each other. We might need to segment out our audiences by things other than demographics and really understand people and what motivates them.

Matt [00:14:07] That’s really hard work and it’s not always work that gives us that sense of control that we get when we just reduce people to a score and say that because it is this special type of score, it somehow has power beyond a simple quantitative approximation. I also want to note that intuition, you know, our brains, our guts are fantastic pattern recognition machines. And in a lot of cases what seems like gut or intuition has some actual pattern matching behind it. So when I work with product managers and executives and they say, “Oh, my gut tells me this,” if you dig in deep and say, “Why?” You usually find some data, qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise there. It’s just a matter of helping facilitate that conversation and helping people recognize that what feels like intuition is usually an expression, a recognition of some kind of pattern that’s appeared multiple times.

Paul [00:14:57] Yeah, you’re burying the lead. I think that that is the job. I think what we do as product managers is pull on these threads and find these patterns. One of the things that you’re calling to mind is an article I probably read ten years ago by Jared Spool, and I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, this qualitative batch of data is often viewed disparagingly or as somehow less valuable than the quant tables. But if you know how to parse it, you can actually get higher-quality results from a smaller sample set of qualitative feedback. You just have to work a little bit harder and know how to ask the right questions and set up the laboratory experiment in a way that your results yield fruit. But I think there is kind of a status that we attribute to qualitative data versus quantitative data that’s somehow not as valuable. I don’t know if that’s corroborating what you’re saying or if that’s something that you’re interested in unpacking a little bit for us.

Matt [00:15:49] I’d absolutely agree with that. And in my book, Product Management in Practice, I actually propose not using the word data in product conversations, but rather referring to the specific information upon which you are basing the decision. Because I think when we talk about the data sets, it yields authority without specificity. There is this idea that we should always follow the data. So if I say, “Well, the data tells me that.” I’m like, “What data? Is that data a survey that you ran? Is that data article you found on the Internet?” Like what is the data?

Matt [00:16:18] I think once we actually talk at greater specificity about what information we are using and what decisions we are using to make that data, then that starts to unwind some of that intrinsic power that we sometimes believe quantitative data to have, right? That takes away the power of the pie chart and starts to get us to a point where we can ask more why questions, which I think are the questions that people will intrinsically be inclined to ask if they’re given space to ask it. But when we use data as a way to shut down conversation rather than a way to structure and facilitate conversation, then it’s going to do more harm than good.

Sean [00:16:55] I just captured a little quote there on authority without specificity, like treating a data source as though it’s authoritative without asking the hard questions or getting into the specificity of it. “Power of the pie chart,” I love that. And, you know, to Paul’s point earlier, we often look at data that’s subjective or qualitative and treat it like anecdotes, like, “Well, this is what we saw in this one case.” But, you know, we need someplace to get ideas from. And I think if you just look at the hard data that shows you the facts from the past, it’s a difficult place to get any creative information about what you might want to try in the future. And that’s the real, I think, the real value of the qualitative data. It’s like this predictability versus possibility conversation that comes up a lot.

Matt [00:17:37] Absolutely. I think also your quantitative models are all based on past data.

Sean [00:17:41] Yeah.

Matt [00:17:41] So qualitative data also helps you just ask the question, “Do our models reflect the reality of the world around us anymore?” You know, I feel like in 2020, a lot of folks had to deal with the fact that their previous quantitative models no longer reflected a world that was changing very quickly in unpredictable ways. So the other advantage of having some qualitative data in there is it helps you identify truly new things. Quantitative models that are based on prior data are usually not a great way to identify truly new things.

Sean [00:18:14] So I’ve captured some really cool nuggets that I’d like to bring out here. First is that there is no operating manual for product management, period. Just get it out of your head. Like George Fox says, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.” And I do believe that product managers need a thinking framework, like, they need something so that they can see the contrast in what they’re doing and they can see the mistakes. But there is no universal model. That’s a great point.

Sean [00:18:38] Number two is about humility being an essential operating principle for product leaders. Like, high-performing teams require a lot of high-performing people, and we need to share the gratitude and share the knowledge to the greatest degree possible. And that requires authentic humility. The third one is that we need to authentically reduce the complexity in order to get more fidelity. I loved the example you used around Net Promoter Score. And I got, the fourth point I got from this is this combination of fidelity and scale, which I had never thought of before, but I thought was a beautiful kind of way to frame why Net Promoter is useful, but not right.

Matt [00:19:17] Yeah.

Sean [00:19:17] And to tie everything off of a metric like that is always going to be, any single metric like that, is going to be a mistake. And then lastly, this authority without specificity thing, when it comes to data, like authoritative data, there really is no such thing. It’s all past-looking anyway like you said. So understanding what data is really authoritative and how to get specificity out of that data, like, the quote is the power of the pie chart, like, to move people’s minds with narrative but not actually get you a better result. So this was a powerful podcast, Matt. Really grateful.

Matt [00:19:53] Thank you. It was a pleasure chatting with you.

Paul [00:19:54] So before we wrap up our time together, we do have a couple of questions that we close out with just to bring things to a close. How would you put the Matt LeMay spin on the concept or the idea of innovation in the way that you see the idea?

Matt [00:20:09] Yeah. I mean, to me, innovation is just about providing solutions that change with people’s needs. Sometimes that doesn’t involve more technology. Sometimes it just involves, again, evolving solutions to meet the evolving needs. And for a lot of the reasons we discussed, when you’re overreliant on quantitative data, it’s often very hard to see those new needs. You just keep meeting the old moments with higher technology solutions, which is often not very innovative at all.

Matt [00:20:36] I remember the heyday of Internet of Things when you had the Internet of Things egg tray that would send you an alert to your phone if you were missing eggs. We don’t really need that. I have a smart humidifier in here, and it is one of the silliest things I have ever encountered in my life. I cannot turn on this humidifier except for over my phone. And if I’m having connectivity issues, I cannot turn on the humidifier. It’s a small humidifier. It doesn’t run for that long, but I can’t press a button on it that turns on the humidifier. Like, the need has not really changed and the additional layer of technology has not made it a better solution. I think looking at how needs can change is really important because if we just cram more technology to meet existing needs, it often does not create better solutions.

Sean [00:21:26] Awesome. And one last question then we’ll wrap up. What’s your favorite piece of content that you’re consuming today? What book do you recommend for the audience? What are you reading?

Matt [00:21:36] I’m not reading a ton of these days, which is unfortunate. I went through a big period of reading a lot of Alan Watts. He has a lot of stuff on Buddhism, which was really helpful for me in dealing with some of my anxiety. I listen to a lot of podcasts these days, some product related, some not. I have been really enjoying, there’s a podcast called Maintenance Phase, which is kind of debunking diet and wellness fads. I found that really helpful because it kind of speaks to a lot of the same things we talked about where bodies are really complex. There is no one approach to wellness that works the same for everybody. Similarly, different bodies are different sizes and different shapes, and you really can’t extrapolate a lot about somebody’s health from one cursory glance at their body or from one metric, that being their weight. So it’s interesting to take this similar approach of acknowledging complexity and sort of giving up that urge to judge based on a single number as it relates to our very bodies, as well as the products we build in our little corner of the world.

Paul [00:22:37] Yeah, very on-brand. Well said. One last time before we wrap up, what is the name of your book and how can people find it?

Matt [00:22:44] Yeah, so the most recent book is Product Management in Practice, Second Edition. I basically rewrote the whole thing and added a bunch of new things for remote and hybrid work, which feels pretty timely. You can find that anywhere. You know, Amazon is the obvious place to get books, but anywhere where O’Reilly books are sold or through the O’Reilly online learning platform. You can find me at I’m on Twitter less these days, as are many of us, for obvious reasons.

Paul [00:23:12] Fair enough. Well, Matt, thank you so much for taking the time today. It’s been a blast getting a peek inside your brain and hearing how you think. It’s been a really fresh take for me. So I really appreciate the insights. Thanks for spending some time with us.

Matt [00:23:23] Thanks so much, Paul. Thanks so much, Sean. Great talking to you.

Sean [00:23:25] Thanks for all you do for the industry. You’re very active on stage in sharing knowledge and very gracious. So we appreciate you.

Matt [00:23:32] Thank you. That’s very sweet. Appreciate that.

Paul [00:23:37] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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