Book Review of Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value by Melissa Peri

Book Review of Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value by Melissa Peri

Since late 80s, the world has witnessed rise and fall of many tech companies. While some still thrives, few of then successful companies have vanished into thin air. Melissa Peri, the CEO of Produx Labs that develops next gen Chief Product Officers, through her book Escaping the Build Trap addresses various issues, based on her experience, that a typical product company faces and how the organization can overcome them by developing right product management processes and putting people in place. 

Any business with the objective to make profits can sustain and thrive only by delivering value to its customers continuously and diligently. Melissa calls this as the Value Exchange System, where the customers will return value to the businesses only if their problems, needs and wants are addressed. The issue arises here as many businesses don’t clearly understand what exactly the customer wants and don’t delve deeper into the problems for various reasons. Hence, they start developing features based on their cursory views or opinions and even Companies encourage this behaviour indirectly by assessing their performance based on the number of features shipped by them.

Melissa shares key lessons that will help an organization become truly product-led and customer centric and the role a Product Manager has to play in leading this journey through the case study of a fictitious company named Marquetly, which is an education company that provides online training for marketers.

The five key elements in attaining the state of a product-led company- understanding and escaping the build trap, role of a product manager, defining the strategy of the organization, setting up a robust product management process, and building the culture that truly embraces, in letter and spirit, the other four elements- are described in the five chapters contained in the book.

Melissa defines ‘Build Trap’ as a situation where ‘organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes’, which if continued would lead to losing customers and associated domino effects, finally resulting losing market share. The underpinning of the whole book is that the only way to grow your organization is to keep listening to the customers and keep learning from their pain points and that’s how one can weasel one’s organization out of the build trap.

The author says that many technology companies emphatically claim that they are product-led, whereas in reality they are sales-led or visionary-led or technology-led and being led under these three categories could turn detrimental for the organization. Melissa shares case studies of various organizations including Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft, Apple, Kodak etc. helping the reader to relate to the author’s views better and also self-evaluate where their organizations stand. Personally, I was able to relate to her views on how some of the early-stage companies allow the sales persons’ commitments to customers define and prioritise the product features, which could get disastrous if allowed to prolong.

According to Melissa, the art of product management is critical for an organization to become product-led as it is the one that will help the organizations recognize and investigate the problems that the team knows that it exists but need to deep dive and of reducing the universe around the uncertainties that could emerge as the team builds a solution to address the customers’ pain point. It is the role of the Product managers(PMs) to identify features and products that will solve customer problems while achieving business goals, optimizing the Value Exchange System

She clearly articulates the typical job profile of a product manager and how crucial it is for the company to identify good resources who can deeply understand both the business and the customer to identify the right opportunities to produce value. She believes that they are “responsible for synthesizing multiple pieces of data, including user analytics, customer feedback, market research, and stakeholder opinions, and then determining in which direction the team should move. They keep the team focused on the why—why are we building this product, and what outcome will it produce?”. They should have an amalgamation of varied skillsets including good understanding of customers, business, technology and leadership skills.

Product Managers are responsible for synthesizing multiple pieces of data, including user analytics, customer feedback, market research, and stakeholder opinions, and then determining in which direction the team should move. They keep the team focused on the why—why are we building this product, and what outcome will it produce?

Melissa acknowledges that for the product manager to successfully implement the product management processes and ruthlessly prioritize in achieving the businesses’ goals, he/she would need complete support of the management. Further, Melissa recommends that one should keep asking the below questions time and again to ensure that the organization is creating successful products:

• How do we determine value?

• How do we measure the success of our products in the market?

• How do we make sure we are building the right thing?

• How do we price and package our product?

• How do we bring our product to market?

• What makes sense to build versus buy?

• How can we integrate with third-party software to enter new markets

The author also promptly highlights various problems that the organization and the product manager would run into as they are becoming a product-led company, such as customers dictating the solutions for their problems. PM should push back and listen internally to the team members, with his/her eye on the goal of addressing the problem of the customer.

And as the organization scales, the product management team’s hierarchy also grows, with entry level starting from Associate product manager, then Product manager, Senior product manager, Director of product, VP of product, and ultimately reaches the Chief product officer and suitably the proportion of their responsibilities revolving around tactical, strategic, and operational work varies, depending on the level one is in.

With the product management team now in place, Melissa introduces a new concept called the ‘Product Kata’, which she describes as the process by which we uncover the right solutions to build, by building a systematic way in approaching a solution from the problem-solving standpoint. As the organization is ready to roll out features addressing the pain points, it is imperative to assess the outcome using relevant product metrics, which the author refers as the ‘lifeblood of every PM’ and insists that the Company should constantly monitor and continuously improve its processes and approach by steering the product and the organization in the right direction.

With right people deployed and right processes enforced, what sets the product led company thrive is the ambience that the organization provides. Melissa stresses that people should be rewarded for learning and achieving goals, not for shipping more (useless) features and management should give free hands and encourage product teams to get close to their customers.

In the end, she leaves the reader with six questions which she uses to evaluate whether a company has escaped the build trap. She strongly suggests that aspiring product managers should ask these during their interviews to see whether this will be the right environment in which they wish to operate.

  • Who came up with the last feature or product idea you built?
  • What was the last product that you decided to kill?
  • When’s the last time you talked with customers?
  • What is your goal?
  • What are you currently working on?
  • What are your product managers like?

Personally, the biggest take away from the book is that the fundamental criterion for building a product is that the product should solve the user’s problem and not just build things for the sake of checking boxes but to further your business. This book could have been a tad bit shorter if not for the repetitions on the importance of being user-centric. Perhaps, the author wanted to emphasize and remind the reader of the key takeaway now and then.  Overall, this book is a good read for developers, product managers, CXOs of companies across all sizes. While the startups could slowly start following these measures, growth-stage startup should aggressively implement the prescribed principles so that they don’t repent later. Matured companies should work much harder to imbibe this culture, in case it isn’t in place already as they should be reminded of the fate of Kodak in failing to course-correct and leverage its market share. 


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