A product spec template for empowered, autonomous teams
Also how to challenge the status quo at work
Today I’d like to share the process we use to kick off projects at Postmark, as well as the project plan template we use (some might call this a product spec or PRD) to ensure our teams have all the context they need to operate autonomously.
The first thing we do when we kick off a new project is to assign the “DACI” roles for decision-making. That framework helps us make decisions efficiently because each team member has a clear understanding of their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. It makes it easier to ask for help and clarification, and also to give and receive feedback. We added a few of our own “rules” to make this work well for our team:
The framework isn’t meant to complicate things. We don’t build decision-making matrices and link weird performance metrics to it or anything. It’s meant to help us clarify who does what to make sure we don't slow down unnecessarily.
Each project should have only one Driver. This isn't the person who does all the work, it’s the person responsible for making sure the project keeps moving forward.
The Driver can’t be the Approver. There can be more than one Approver, but to be very clear about this: the Driver will still run with the project and make most of the decisions. The Approver is there to help out, provide business context, and yes, in some cases make final decisions on things, if needed.
Once we have that sorted we start on the project plan, and here’s where things might sound a little controversial from a product management perspective… it is not always the product manager who writes the first draft of the project plan. This started as a matter of necessity, because I frequently got overwhelmed with spec writing as the (then) only PM on Postmark. Our experiment to help relieve some of that pressure was to make it the Driver’s responsibility to write the first draft of the project plan. The rest of the team (including me) comes in afterward to ask questions and polish the doc. The added benefit? Drivers have a way better understanding of the work they’re about to do, and they also feel a strong sense of ownership.
For this to work well we needed a good template to help with the scary “blank page” phenomenon. Of course there is no shortage of “product spec” templates out there, so the one our team uses isn’t particularly groundbreaking or new, but I like it for a couple of reasons:
We’re very serious about the “living document” nature of our template. We don’t fill out the whole thing up front, we host it in Google Docs, and everyone on the team has full edit access. We truly work on it together.
I like the focus on defining the problem, the market, the risks, and the success metrics before anything else happens. I like the modular nature of it—just use what’s applicable to the project. And I like that it’s fairly short and focuses only on what’s needed.
If you’re interested you can view the template on Github. Feel free to send me feedback or questions!
What I’m reading asks Why do companies over-hire? and provides some good suggestions for how to avoid that trap:
When planning headcount ask yourself, how is your current org structure helping and hindering you? If you were to design it from scratch today, what changes would you make? What, if any, changes could you make that would increase efficiency and reduce headcount requirements?
In ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think Ian Bogost makes this excellent observation:
GPT and other large language models are aesthetic instruments rather than epistemological ones. Imagine a weird, unholy synthesizer whose buttons sample textual information, style, and semantics. Such a thing is compelling not because it offers answers in the form of text, but because it makes it possible to play text—all the text, almost—like an instrument.
I know you’re probably sick of ChatGPT screenshots, but as a big Phil Collins fan who gets a lot of flak for it, I have to say I’m pretty proud of this one.
In Challenging the status quo at work—a good post that you should read mostly for the excellent framework for how to challenge ideas in the workplace—Hebba Youssef writes:
Many of us never learn the valuable life skill of productive disagreement. You can thank your parents for that.
Many parents choose not to argue in front of their children for fear of impact. But it’s not the frequency of arguments that matters, it’s HOW respectfully the parents argue. It turns out productive arguments actually help flex the creative muscle and teach children to speak up with their ideas.
So if you didn’t grow up in a family that openly handled conflict you may not like conflict or have the tools to handle conflict. It doesn’t help that few workplaces teach employees how to productively challenge ideas or how to handle conflict.
My parents never had an argument in front of me and brother, and it made me really scared of conflict. My wife’s family was… quite the opposite. So one thing I have learned from her over the years that is important to remember is this: it’s not the public argument that matters, it’s how you publicly repair afterwards. That’s the part that teaches kids about healthy conflict.
Or, to quote Pink Floyd, “all we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
Some stray links
📷 These photos are incredible. 2022 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year.
🤖 I hope Clive is really proud of this sentence in his all-around excellent piece on why ChatGPT gets so many basic facts wrong: “Which leads to the real problem: The bot always sounds confident, even when it’s talking out of its ass.”
🇺🇸 This is just so weird. The story behind those ultrapatriotic USA memes going viral this World Cup. “The artist behind the drawings told Semafor that he’s ‘very apolitical’ and not a big sports fan.”
🧓 This week’s “for my fellow olds” link: The Loss of HLN Marks the End of Companion Television. “Television news, the way I see it, is about consistency and companionship. Or it was, anyway. TV journalists break big stories and speak truth to power the same way journalists in every other medium do—but the thing that sets TV apart is the relationship forged between the people on either side of the screen.”