Software Product Manager Melissa Perri Got Stuck in the “Build Trap”

Software Product Manager Melissa Perri Got Stuck in the “Build Trap”


Check out all episodes on the My Favorite Mistake main page.

My guest for Episode #96 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is Melissa Perri.

She is the author of the book Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value.

Melissa does many things, including hosting the podcast Product Thinking with Melissa Perri. She is Founder & CEO of Produx Labs. Melissa created the online school Product Institute, where she has shared her scientific approach to Product Management with over 3500 students. She also started a program called the CPO Accelerator.

In 2019, Melissa was appointed to the faculty of Harvard Business School to teach Product Management in the MBA program.

Melissa is a highly sought-after keynote speaker, having addressed audiences in over 35 countries. She has a B.S. in Operations Research and Information Engineering from Cornell University.

In today's episode, Melissa shares her “favorite mistake” story related to working for a software company, where they produced a big requirements document and then built software that, basically, nobody wanted to use. People SAY they’ll use it, but really??

Other topics and questions:

  • How do we know if it’s a great startup idea?
  • The Highest Paid Person's Opinion?
  • Risk of creating smaller batches but not being open to experiments not working out
  • *MVP – minimum viable product
  • Delegating the things you’re really good at
  • Didn’t listen to gut over advice, warring with herself for years
  • “Experiment theatre”
  • What is “The Build Trap”?
  • As a consultant, have to be careful not naming names when presenting on stage or doing podcasts… everyone’s on a journey
  • Product management mistakes?
  • Is the problem the product managers or the company?

Scroll down to find:

  • Watch the video
  • How to subscribe
  • Full transcript

Watch the Episode:


"I call it 'experimentation theater' because they're not actually doing the first thing, which is getting to the root of the problem... and then run experiments around the different solutions."
"I think my favorite mistake kind of set me on the path that I'm on now."
"Instead of personal pet projects, are we all willing to sit here and admit that we are wrong at certain points?"

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Automated Transcript (Likely Contains Mistakes)

Mark Graban (0s):

Episode 96, Melissa Perri, author of the book Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value. And

Melissa Perri (9s):

I started monitoring through Google analytics that I found that first day we got bunch of people logging in second day, couple people log in third day, nobody's logging in…

Mark Graban (22s):

I'm Mark Graban. This is My Favorite Mistake. In this podcast, you'll hear business leaders and other really interesting people talking about their favorite mistakes because we all make mistakes, but what matters is learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. So this is the place for honest reflection and conversation, personal growth and professional success. Visit our website at For show notes, links about Melissa's work, books and more go to Our guest today is Melissa Perri.

Mark Graban (1m 3s):

She's the founder And CEO of Produx Labs. She's a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School where she teaches product management and she's also the founder and lead instructor of the Product Institute. So before I tell you a little bit more about Melissa, let me say first off, welcome. Thanks for being here

Melissa Perri (1m 20s):

And thanks for having me. So I'm

Mark Graban (1m 21s):

Melissa, I'm gonna tell you more about her. She has a book called Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value. And that's something we're going to be able to dig into today. She has a podcast called product thinking with Melissa Perri, and I should have checked in advance, like the way things changed in this fast moving.

Melissa Perri (1m 46s):

Yes, that's all still accurate. All the things I do. I run a it's like silly. I feel like, oh yeah, there's one more thing to add on there. I run a program called CPO Acelerator for a VPs of product to learn how to take the leap into the executive suite. So that's the last thing on my very long list of things that I do, but that's fairly new. We've run three sessions so far, and I'm really excited because one of our participants from our January cohort was a VP of product at our company. It just went through a giant merger, huge growth stage company in London, and she was just named chief product officer.

Melissa Perri (2m 27s):

So I'm very excited that it's it's working.

Mark Graban (2m 31s):

I'm sure it's going to continue working so hope people will check that out. And then the other things I was going to add my mistake here, there's the rest of the bio. Melissa is a highly sought after keynote speaker. She's addressed audiences in over 35 countries. I think that's where I first learned who you were, was probably at Lean Startup Week conference. I think I saw you speak.

Melissa Perri (2m 52s):

Yeah, definitely. I think we were, yeah, it was definitely one of the lean startup conferences or yeah, that, that's where I think we were the last time and also in the, the lean Toyota Kata type stuff and the lean kanban world, we were kind of floating around there too. So I've been following you on Twitter for quite awhile. Yeah. Well,

Mark Graban (3m 14s):

Likewise, I'm kind of on the periphery of some of those worlds. That's more of your core professional home base,

Melissa Perri (3m 20s):

The Toyota lean stuff. I kind of float in and out, but, but it's cool to see it like apply to so many different industries, which is cool. Yeah,

Mark Graban (3m 27s):

For sure. And we do have a little bit of overlap educationally similar degrees. Melissa has a bachelor's in operations research and information engineering from Cornell University, which is close enough. My field of industrial engineering. I think there's a lot of overlap there as well.

Melissa Perri (3m 43s):

Yep. They actually used to call it. They changed the name of it from industrial to information engineering while I was at Cornell. And I was like, what does that mean? They were like, we don't, we don't know, but we're going to change the name. It does sound

Mark Graban (3m 56s):

More modern. Industrial does have kind of a dusty,

Melissa Perri (3m 60s):

It has a dusty connotation to it. Yeah. I also can tell you, I don't know anything really like, it definitely didn't concentrate on the industrial engineering part. Like if you asked me about that, I don't think I would be able to answer any questions. Well,

Mark Graban (4m 12s):

Even the professional association changed his name from the Institute of industrial engineers to the Institute of industrial and systems engineers, which might be as vague, but maybe again, more modern. Interesting. So most of before we talk about your book and your other work, what kind of dive in as we normally do here, what would you say looking back at your work, the different things you've done? What, what, what is your favorite mistake?

Melissa Perri (4m 38s):

Yeah, I think my favorite mistake kind of set me on the path that I'm on now. And that was really when I was a product manager at open sky, which was the first startup that I joined way back when I had kind of come in there. I was employee number like 35. We were a e-commerce startup in New York city. I came in there as a product manager and I had been doing product management and very large companies before like banks and financial, you know, companies that operate in a very, what we call now waterfall way. And back then, I was just taught like this, the way you do your job. And I was like, cool. Came into the startup.

Melissa Perri (5m 19s):

And the CTO I had previously worked for about like a couple of years prior was the one who brought me in. So it left a big company, one for the startup and then said, Hey, I need you to come in and do what you were doing for me. They're here. We need some rigor. We need some process and need you're right. Specification documents, like dive in and get going. So I did, I walked in and I was like, all right, I can do this. Let's start specking, everything out, write these long, long specification documents, shipped them off to the engineers and, you know, waited to see what would happen if they would actually like, you know, build it. And I remember the first time I did that, three weeks later, they were like, okay, ready for you to QA. I went in there, I started looking at the product and it was, it was nothing that I specified.

Melissa Perri (6m 6s):

So it was like, how'd you get this from? Did you make it up? Like where did they come from? And that's what I realized, like, what I was doing was not going to work here. The engineers were like, no, I'm not going to read a 30 page document. Like I'm used to making open source products and like doing fun engineering stuff. Like the hell I'm going to read this. So I that's, when I first got introduced to agile and our, one of the guys on the team after we had been butting heads with me and the whole team, like for, I'd say probably a good three months of me trying to get them, force them to read things. And they were like, no, he was like, let's try this thing called agile.

Melissa Perri (6m 48s):

I'm an agile coach. Technically he's like, I'm also, he was a software engineer for us. It wasn't like he was hired to be an agile coach. He was, he just had happened to be certified in it. And we were like, okay, we'll try whatever, because we all hate each other right now. Let's, let's get this, let's fix this. So we ended up learning some basic scrum. We started just really like talking about what we were doing instead of me going off in a corner and writing a big specification document and coming back. And we found that just that lightweight process in the meetings that we spent together, it helps so much. And we got it down to where I'd write like a one pager and then just spec everything out and user stories. And we started like cruising as a team.

Melissa Perri (7m 29s):

After that, like a year later, we were just so effective and operating like crazy, crazy, crazy good. And I was pretty excited about that. But what I realized at that point, this was the, the biggest mistake. Like that was definitely a mistake. But the biggest mistake I had been making came through a realization of when we started to measure the success of our product. So we'd been like cruising our, our, our, I loved my team, loved hanging out with the guys. Like we, we all just got along. So, so well, and we were really effective building lots of stuff. So we kept getting harder and harder projects thrown into us. And we had scaled the company. Now I came in at like employee 35. We had 150 people.

Melissa Perri (8m 9s):

We were nearing 200 people at this point and tons and tons of traffic coming to the site. Massive. You know, it's scaling, we're raising a lot of money scaling pretty fast. And we had this one project that our CEO gave us where he said, in order to keep scaling, we can't hire millions of people to like service their customers. And we, we had these curators on our site who would like pick out the products that we would sell. He's like, we have no way, except just calling them on the phone to like work with them. We need to like start to automate this, start to build these dashboards and stuff for them. So we got him at the task of figuring out how to do that. Like how do we build a system where these curators can pick out the products and manage your businesses and see everything you can think of it as like people had stores kind of like, but we did all of the sourcing of it in the selling.

Melissa Perri (8m 58s):

So we needed somebody to pick out those products. So I went out and I mocked everything up. We made it really nice. And then we broke it down into our agile sprints. And we spent like a long time. We had gone out and asked curators, like, what do you want to see? And I started taking like a list of requirements, right? We started using our agile process to break it down, put it out there and build it. And about three months later, we were ready to do like a big splashy launch. And we emailed everybody. And it was the first time that we ever used analytics on anything. It wasn't really a thing back then. This is like over 10 years ago. And we put Google analytics on the product and told all the curators about it.

Melissa Perri (9m 39s):

They were like, so cool. Sounds great. Fantastic. And I started monitoring the Google analytics and I found that, you know, first day I've got bunch of people logging in second day. A couple of people log in third day, nobody's logging in week later, nobody logging in a month later crickets. So it's, I'm like, what the hell is going on? Like why, why are people not using it? Our product what's happening here? And I started contacting them, especially the ones I took, like the requirements from. And I said, you told me you wanted to build this stuff, but you wanted us to build this stuff. What's going on. Like in there, like, oh yeah. You know, in hindsight, none of that's really necessary.

Melissa Perri (10m 20s):

It's not really what I need. Right. It's what I thought I wanted, but it's not what I needed. Like I told you, I wanted to see all these complicated financials of all the products we sell, but I don't really care. All I care about is profit. And I can't find profit cause he buried it on the page somewhere. Right? Like that, that type of stuff. And it made me go, oh my God, we just spent all this time building this stuff and never really stopped to think, was it the right thing to build? Like, is it really going to satisfy their problems? And that got me onto this journey of like figuring out what or how do we do that better. So I ended up going to a lean startup machine workshop over a weekend.

Melissa Perri (11m 0s):

My boss was like, yeah, if you want to give up your work can go to this workshop, go for it. Okay. Like two of the developers had gone a month before in New York and they were like, oh, it's fantastic, Melissa. You're going to love it. And I was like, cool, I'll try anything. Like, I want to go, I want to go see what it's like. And at the lean start machine workshop, we started learning about like experimentation and treating building products, just like a scientific formula. And to me, like coming from an engineering background, I was like, oh yeah, this is my jam. Like, this is how my brain thinks. Right. And I was very excited about that. Like I was like, yeah, eating this up. But I started looking at it and we were, we were building like startup ideas. I don't, I've never been one to have like any really great startup ideas, but I looked at it and I was like, I could use this process to prove out our products and our features that we're building at open sky.

Melissa Perri (11m 51s):

So I went back and I was like, can I start doing this? And my boss was like, yeah, go for it. Like run some experimentation, run this. And we had a great CEO who was like super visionary and he had a million ideas and I was like, great. Now I can actually test the ideas. Like, can I, can I go out? And everybody was super supportive about it, but they were like, yeah, do it, do it. So I started doing, I started getting the data and I was able to start proving, yes, this is what we should be doing versus this is what we should not be doing. And I remember the first like idea pseudo killed, right. Came from the CEO. We tested it, we ran experiments and we found like that. It did not, it did not get the money, the revenue that we actually thought it would, but it actually ended up.

Melissa Perri (12m 33s):

And I didn't know this at the time, my, my old VP of product actually told me this just like last year. And it blew my mind, but he's like, oh, I was cleaning out my inbox. Cause he's leaving the company. Now. He was like, it was cleaning out my inbox. And I found the results of those experiments. You run, ran back in the day and he's like, look at the chain discussion that this actually started. It ended up being the catalyst that like pivoted our entire company into what it is now. And I was like, wow, I didn't realize how much meaning those things had at the time for that company in particular. But I saw how powerful it was just to, to have that concept of all our product ideas should be tested.

Melissa Perri (13m 15s):

Right? Like an idea is just an idea. And it doesn't matter if you, it doesn't matter unless it's going to get you some value right. At the end of the day. So I guess making all those mistakes, right? Like during that big three month long project, putting it out there, that really was my big mistake. That started the catalyst of basically what I do now. Because once I ran those experiments, my boss, same boss was like, was like, you need to show other people how you do this. He's like, I don't know any product managers who run these types of experiments or do this types of stuff. He's like, you should teach us stuff. And he actually was the one who pushed me to go teach it. I started on Skillshare and then I started doing workshops on it.

Melissa Perri (13m 57s):

And then I ended up building product Institute and started helping all these companies. But it really was the path that started all this stuff that I do today.

Mark Graban (14m 4s):

So going back to the first part of the story about having the big specification documents and, you know, I was involved in a startup software company in the 2001, 2002 timeframe. And you're right. There were the, the, these big documents. We had a product manager taking input from sales and from customers and from, from everybody writing this big, huge documents. So, you know, I mean, to be fair to you that, that wasn't, it's not like that was uniquely your mistake. That was maybe an industry mistake. That was kind of the norm at the time. Yeah.

Melissa Perri (14m 41s):

It was in the norm. And I still think it is a norm in a lot of places, right? Like we, we get very attached to our ideas. I mean, this is why I still in business, but it's like if there's tons of companies that are still figuring this out. And I think just as humans, we're subject to so much bias where we're like attached to our ideas. We come up with something cool. We're like, oh, we have to build it. So we're fighting in SAP. Plus we're fighting against product management is a kind of nice discipline. There've been product managers out there for a very long time. Some people have been in this business for 20 years, 30 years, especially if they're coming out of Silicon valley.

Melissa Perri (15m 21s):

But as a whole what's happening is we're having a lot more companies starting to adopt software and thus starting to get product management for the first time. So it was becoming a more prevalent role, but we don't have enough people out there who have been doing it for so long that they're very well versed in these different techniques. So it still is a maturing industry. And I think companies are still trying to understand like how it works. So yeah, it's still, it's still out there, but definitely back in the day as well. Like that's how we were all taught to do it,

Mark Graban (15m 52s):

But so at least you recognize, all right, well, Hey, this is too risky to do this big, huge batch, not communicating back and forth. There's risk of misunderstanding, miscommunication, just going off and doing our own thing. I mean, it seems like there's two pieces here that lead to this more experimental lean startup type approach. Maybe one is the idea of smaller batches, tighter collaboration, shorter cycles. But then the second thing is being open to the idea of like, oh, we might be wrong. It seems like people could adopt the first small batches, but then stubbornly keep moving forward. Even if the data and analytics say, oh, that wasn't a good idea.

Melissa Perri (16m 32s):

I see that all the time, all the time, I've worked with tons of really large companies who are trying to transform into an agile company. And then the second thing that they do is like, okay, now we want to be like a lean product focused company. And that's usually where I came in in the past. And we still do a lot of training around that, but what will happen? And so I don't, I don't get super deep on the consulting pieces with large companies anymore, but I used to, like, I used to go in and coach these teams and I worked with a lot of teams trying to adopt these lean startup-y type principles, the small batches, which is, you know, more lean, but, and I would train the teams and I would teach them how to do it.

Melissa Perri (17m 15s):

And I would teach them how to do MVPs. And they would prove it was a bad idea or they'd prove that there was no strategy that actually aligned everything at the top of the company. And they were just experimenting to experiment and we'd bring that to management. And they just would say, I don't care. Just build it. Right. So it's, it's, it's really interesting because there's only so much process. You can teach people, right. If the culture doesn't change as well, and it is that willing to be wrong and the willing to say, Hey, this may actually change the way that we work or the things that we produce.

Mark Graban (17m 48s):

And for those who don't know, the term is minimum viable product comes from the lean startup space. And I mean, I think that idea in general, like for the work I do, let's say if we're doing process improvement in hospitals, smaller batches, smaller tests of change, or when you can do it or incredibly helpful to test a process on a small scale, because you might be wrong instead of saying, well, I have this idea. I know it's right. We're going to roll it out through the whole hospital and spend a ton of money. And it's the same risk is the big batch specification document. And then when it's a larger test of change, I think it becomes scarier more embarrassing, more humbling for someone to say, we, we, we took this big swing and it was wrong as opposed to the small test of change.

Mark Graban (18m 41s):

But then I think, you know, that's compounded, you're, you're talking about an example there of a CEO, having an idea as what what's, what's the, the, the acronym of, of hippo, the highly important, highly paid highest-paid person in the room. And basically they can't be wrong. I mean, what that that's politically risky when the analytics are pointing out that the CEO's pet project or idea isn't panning out. I mean, I have thoughts on how to address that conundrum.

Melissa Perri (19m 12s):

You know, I just had this conversation right before I jumped on with you, with somebody who she's the first product manager in a, in a startup founder, led founder was the, the CEO is who was the first product person, right. Taking that over. And I think that's an issue I hear from like a lot of people. It's like, how do I work with this person? They have a million ideas. They're like, got all these ideas, but I can't keep up with them. All I explained to people like, no matter where the ideas come from, right, your job as a product manager is to help provide structure around it and talk about the pros and cons of doing those ideas. Your job is not to basically dismiss every idea that comes your way.

Melissa Perri (19m 53s):

Right? Every idea is a good idea, but that's just, it, that's where it ends. Right. It's a good idea. But now is it good and execution? That's what we have to figure out. So I tell people, especially when you have a CEO come into you with an idea, your response should be like, that sounds fantastic. Cool. What a great idea. I'm going to go do my job now, which is to run some numbers on that. And then I'm going to come back to you with a PR with a plan, right. And that's where you go back and you experiment around it and you say, Hey, we tested this out. And we found like, but you start, I would say too, before you run off, you say, what do you expect that to do? Right. Great idea. What do you expect to happen when we actually build this will increase revenue. Will it stop churn? Will it like, get us new market share or anything like that?

Melissa Perri (20m 36s):

Like what do you expect to actually happen? So you take that, you experiment around it and then come back and you tell them like, okay, so we ran some of the experiments around it and we found that this is as much as we could possibly get from. Is that good for you? Right. Like you, you put the ball back in their court. Is, is that sound like something that you're willing to go after? And if they say, yes, you'd be like, okay, this is how it changes our current roadmap. So are you willing to sacrifice X, Y, and Z on our current roadmap to go after those things? Or would you prefer us to finish what we're currently working on? Right. It's all about presenting trade-offs and risks and, and helping people make decisions. It's not necessarily about making all the decisions yourself.

Mark Graban (21m 17s):

And, and I, I looked it up because I totally botched the acronym. I had it. Conceptually HIPPO is the highest paid person's opinion. Yes. And, and, and that's risky when, when data butts up against that, I mean, there's, there's risk. I think you've touched on and I've run across this. There's what people say they want to do with software. There's what people say they're going to buy. But I think one thing that's Tess powerful about the lean startup methodology. And we can relate this to other areas is okay. Trust, but verify like people say, they want to do that, but how do you go test that? For real? They say, they're going to buy it. Versus they actually punch in their credit card numbers. That's, that's two very different things.

Mark Graban (21m 58s):

I mean, I've seen two different times over a decade where people in healthcare organizations say they want to collaborate and share improvement ideas, not just within their organization, but across organizational boundaries, but then they don't really do it. And so it's a matter of like, just not figuring out the execution or am I going to just stop believing people when they say we want a website so I can share ideas, people outside my organization can access, because then there are so many reasons legal, embarrassments, like sharing process improvement ideas in a way is highlighting something that wasn't ideal.

Mark Graban (22m 38s):

I think people then when it really comes down to it, they're like, oh, I don't want to type that into some system. That's going to make me look bad. And, and it sort of breaks down in practice. That's one of my experiences with something like that.

Melissa Perri (22m 51s):

Yeah. I see that a lot too in product. Like I think a lot of it comes down to culture as well of an organization. Like on my podcast, I talked to give Biddle about how they do learning at Netflix. And a lot of what Netflix does is so characterized by tons of experimentation. And he, you know, he points out in, in like when we were talking, he said we had to all be willing to look at those numbers and say like, yeah, we shouldn't do that. And because we all had the best interest of the company at heart, he's like, even our CEO, it wasn't about him. It was about building the company. And you know, that we were willing to make the hard decisions if they weren't the right decisions.

Melissa Perri (23m 32s):

Even if it like bruise people's ego. And I think that's the culture you need in any organization to be able to introduce experimentation. So like, you have to have the, the ability to look at everything, like what I'm about too, like product managers, showing the CEO stuff and letting them make the choice. Like it's great to do with a difficult CEO, right? Like you, you, when somebody, when it's touchy or when you're worried about hurting somebody's feelings, like that's what you do in a good organization. Hopefully the product manager could come back and say, we shouldn't do this and be respected for that opinion. And the CEO might say like, I have reasons why we need to, that's totally fine. But you know, I feel like in some organizations it's not safe to, to kill the ideas or to say that's a bad decision, especially when it's with management.

Melissa Perri (24m 20s):

Even if you have all the data in the world to prove it. And those organizations, I think will struggle with anything like this. They're just going to struggle. I think, to build great products because you can't talk about building great products there, right? Like you can't have the conversations that you need to have to say, are we all moving towards our goals? Because you're worried about stepping on people's toes and

Mark Graban (24m 44s):

You know, you, I think there's this catch 22, where as engineers or as entrepreneurs, we might want to be data-driven, but then we're also trying to be optimistic or else why, why else would you start a company? Why else would you launch a product? So when you get today three, and that story, you were describing, the big launch, maybe people logged in once and never came back. Maybe that's what was happening. And then it, it, it trailed down today. Three, nobody logging in. How many days of nobody logging in? Do you have to go through before you say, you know what, this, we, maybe we should pull the plug on this versus the optimist who says, well, we just haven't figured it out yet.

Mark Graban (25m 24s):

We just need more time. We just need to promote it better. Like all the defensive slash optimistic responses start coming in. I mean, there, there is. Would you say, I mean, there, there's an art to evaluating an experiment of, when do you say, pull the plug on this or we need to completely pivot versus refinement of

Melissa Perri (25m 44s):

It? Yeah. I mean, a huge art hard to do. I have been part of a, another team that I was working with, you know, we were experimenting because that's what the leadership wanted them to do. Right? Like I'm coaching this team and they're like run experiments. And it was around conversion rate and we were changing a million different things on the site and nothing was actually changing. And everybody was like, it's just because we don't have the right idea yet. So try this promotion, try that promotion, try that. And nobody wants to stop and say, it's actually, because we don't know what the problem is.

Melissa Perri (26m 24s):

We don't know why people aren't signing up. Right. Like we don't know why people aren't buying

Mark Graban (26m 28s):

And it was

Melissa Perri (26m 30s):

Exactly right. And, and w

Mark Graban (26m 32s):

That's good, that's good. Lean problem solving. And to say, what's the problem.

Melissa Perri (26m 37s):

Yeah. Like getting to the root of it. You know, I got caught up in a too. It's like, cool. We could test all these ideas and you can test a million ideas. You can run experimentation. I call it experimentation theater because I, that's not the only company I've seen that does that. Right. It's like, oh, as long as we're running experiments, we'll be fine, but they're not actually doing the first thing, which is get to the root of the problem and then run experiments around the different solutions. They just experiment and experiment until just to check a box, right? Like, Hey, we have an experimentation in our, in our team. And I don't think experimentation is easy to do well. Like I think so I run like an example to that. I see as well.

Melissa Perri (27m 17s):

Cause I think everybody's just really output focused cause it's, I'm going on so many tangents. But one of the things that I do is teach people the product kata, which is basically Toyota kata, but how do you apply it and experiment around products? And one of the things that I do see junior product managers do, which I didn't expect actually was trying to fill up as many rows as possible in the different experimentation. So I'll like pop it into a Google sheet for them and let them go through the process of running through the kata, basically defining like, what's the problem we're solving? What do we need to learn next? You know, how are we going to learn it? What's the experiment we're going to run to do that. What did we learn? And then reflecting on it. And each one of those would be a row.

Melissa Perri (27m 57s):

And I've walked into some teams where they'll have 250 rows for the last, like three weeks. And I was like, Aw, how many experiments did you run? But the question is also like, why why'd you run 250 experiments? Like what, what were you trying to learn here? And the big issue is like, they don't stop and get to that problem that we were talking about. But I think the other issue too, is that we, we judge people for success based on these outputs, right. Rather than the outcomes and the overall company success or the project success, usually eventually we'll get judged by an outcome. Like, you know, you launch a product that doesn't do anything for five years. Eventually that product will get shut down or, or revamped or something.

Melissa Perri (28m 39s):

But five years is too long to wait to actually analyze that. And we're not really getting that feedback loops faster, but that's because we're focusing on measuring the success of our teams by how much they do put out. So I have seen teams get rewarded for running 50 experiments. Like I saw, I had one team that had a goal of running 50 experiments a quarter. And I was like, but why like, why should they run 50 experiments? Right? Like what are you actually experimenting around? It's not, it's not a good goal because it's not getting to those outcomes. But I think it's, it's so much easier to measure outputs, right? Those, those velocity metrics. We talk about those, how many experiments did you run?

Melissa Perri (29m 21s):

Anything like that than it is to measure the outcomes, because that requires a lot more analysis and a lot more digging. And I think we just get comfortable with that. I see

Mark Graban (29m 29s):

A lot of that in different settings. What you're describing as experiment theater, I see or hear about in some organizations that in the lean framework, you're doing a three problem solving. They're being measured. How many eighth threes, like how many of the templates they fill out, which can be problematic that's activity or output versus outcomes or impact even worse is when they're really kind of going through the motions of, you know, not being on the <inaudible> should be framed as an experiment. Like you're saying, make sure we really understand the problem. The current state root causes then start talking about potential countermeasures that we test experimentally.

Mark Graban (30m 10s):

The eighty-three theater would be when someone says, well, I know what the solution is. So I'm going to go through the motions and fill out the form in a way that works backward to my preordained solution. I'm like, what's the, what's the point. And, and, and do we really expect that that's going to lead to better outcomes than a more rigorous, authentic use of the methodology, but I think it goes to show again, you know, you're going to have some sort of tool, but without the mindset or the culture, it might not work the same as it would at Toyota or some great software development house.

Melissa Perri (30m 42s):

Exactly. And I think that gets back into what you're talking about. Like all of this comes down to culture, like, do we really understand as a company, what our goals are? Are we all bought into reaching those goals? Right? Like instead of personal pet projects, are we all willing to sit here and admit that we are wrong at certain points? Right. We made a mistake, favorite mistake right here. That culture needs to be in place before any of this could work.

Mark Graban (31m 11s):

And that, and that that's my, my passion around trying to develop that culture. That's that's one of my reasons for doing this podcast is sort of normalizing and exploring this idea of, there are a lot of good hypotheses or plausible hypothesis that don't work out in practice. That's a long way of saying mistake. That's one type of mistake that maybe not the worst kind of mistake. So I, I wanna talk to on a couple of other things before we have to wrap up here, one is tell us a little bit about the book, the build trap. And I think you've alluded to some of what is behind that title, but what do you mean by the build trap? What's the kind of nutshell summary of that.

Melissa Perri (31m 52s):

Yeah, it is basically what we were doing. Before we started measuring our success and I see a lot of other companies get into, like we had talked about it is kind of how we learned how to do waterfall product management is how companies typically operate, which is you keep building and building and building, but you're never stopping to think, is that the right thing to build? How does this relate back to our goals? How do we make sure we're on the right path before you commit to going down those paths? So that's why I wrote the book. I saw it in a ton of companies after open sky. I saw a lot of people struggling to get out of it. I get tons of questions about how to set up good product management to get out of it every single day.

Melissa Perri (32m 32s):

And that, that was really the impetus of writing the book. So it's about really, how do you set up a whole product organization that will get you out of the build trap that, that creates and tests the strategy and, and figures out what's the right thing to build and operates on that process and then sets up, sets up an infrastructure to scale that decision-making across the organization.

Mark Graban (32m 56s):

I guess it's a trap because it sounds good, but it's not, that's why a good trap draws people in for some reason, right?

Melissa Perri (33m 6s):

Yeah. Yeah. It's comfortable. I mean, it's hard to get out of this trap and I, a lot of companies that I talked to or like tell me all the super successful transformation stories of companies who've gotten out of this, and I've asked all my friends as well, and there's a couple, there are a couple of good transformation stories out there, but I don't know if any company is doing a hundred percent perfectly all the time. I think there's companies that generally do it most of the time and they have a culture of learning. They have, you know, executives and teams that, that question, their ideas and, and, you know, create strategy. And they're, they're following this path most of the time.

Melissa Perri (33m 47s):

But I do think maybe, you know, every once in a while they do admit like, Hey, yeah, we do get stuck in that. And then we have to pull ourselves back out. So it's, it's a slippery slope for sure.

Mark Graban (33m 58s):

And if the bar for who we might want to learn from an emulate is perfection. I mean, you know, Toyota people admit they're not perfect when it comes to different principles or standards that we would look to Toyota for. And, you know, you know, we shouldn't put any organization on so much of a pedestal that we're going to be, you know, completely disheartened if we here, but, but they didn't uphold that principle. 100% of the time they're human. The company's made a few amens and well-managed companies with a strong culture, maybe help avoid some of these pitfalls, but every company backslides and that's, that's, you know, I've heard stories that way about Toyota.

Mark Graban (34m 40s):

When you think of like discipline around process and standard work. And there've been at least a couple of times, I've heard stories from Toyota people around and they've talked about this publicly. Like, yeah, we kind of lost some of our discipline. We needed to go back in and take a closer look at, at our standard work. And, and, and in a way maybe that's reassuring to people. So it doesn't set the bar so high. You can struggle. You can make some mistakes, but learn from it, get past it, get better is maybe a more realistic thing to do.

Melissa Perri (35m 11s):

Yeah. I think it's about the exception versus the rule, right? Like if you are generally doing the things that you should be doing great. And if you have a couple instances where you decided not to follow them or something happened, you're human, like you said, right. Like it's, it's, it's natural. I think a lot of companies end up in that situation, but you're right. It's just about learning it. And I have people who read my and sometimes be like, yeah, but do I have to do this all the time? Like, is this, is this like, I'm not a product led company. If I don't check every single box in this book. And I'm like, no, do do you produce great products that your customers love?

Melissa Perri (35m 52s):

If the answer is yes, and you made a scalable business and the business is thriving and people love your product. Congratulations. I don't care if you don't do the product ops exactly how I described it in the book. I don't care if you don't have a product strategy that matches the framework that I decided to teach you. Right. Like you did good, good job.

Mark Graban (36m 11s):

And you know, Eric Ries to his credit is not certifying companies as I'm a certified lean startup. I think he would scoff at that whole idea. And to his credit, there would be money to be made in certifying startups.

Melissa Perri (36m 26s):

Oh, there it is. Yep.

Mark Graban (36m 28s):

And please, somebody listening, please don't do that. I think Eric, Eric, Eric trademarked the phrase, The Lean Startup, maybe to head off that exact sort of thing there. So I've, you know, I may have fallen into this trap myself. So I've mentioned Toyota and I'm passing along things that I've heard from former Toyota people. I'm not trying to throw them under the bus, but you know, we, we, we have to be careful. I think, you know, whether we're giving speeches on stage or podcasting, like, oh, something that's recorded and not there forever. I'm not throwing Melissa under the bus here. She knew I was good to bring this up, but this conversation here is actually sort of version 2.0, the first time we went about this, do, can I ask you to describe what happened, Melissa?

Melissa Perri (37m 19s):

Yeah, I was telling a story, I think because it was super fresh in my mind to have an experience that I just went through. I was telling a story about a more recent mistake that I made that I was trying to learn from. And I think I've been reflecting on it a lot. So it was like good to process it and talk about it. But I did did name some names and I reflected on it after listening and said, you know, I don't feel good about that because I don't the way I portrayed it came off negative. And I don't think it was a negative experience, but the way I talked about it and I named some names, you know, made it sound like a negative experience. And I was like, oh, I don't want to represent it that way.

Melissa Perri (38m 2s):

And we start getting into the conversation afterwards, too, about that, of like sometimes, you know, I learned this much earlier on too. Like I was doing a conference once and I, I named dropped long time ago, long time ago, a name dropped, I didn't name drop a client, but I described a client in there and they saw themselves in the description that they ended up watching it as hopefully your clients watch your stuff. They did. And they said, we don't really feel good about how you portrayed us in it. Like, we know that you didn't name her name, but like I'm worried that people at our company will watch it and feel because you described your journey and we are struggling, but like I want people to try.

Melissa Perri (38m 42s):

And that made me really reflect on that and say like, yeah, everybody's going through a change. And especially in our line of work, a lot of people are going on these transformations. It's fantastic. When you can tell a story about how we made a crazy mistake and we learned from it and it had a beautiful shining silver lining afterwards, but you got to give those mistakes a chance to be learned from before you can go bashing them. And I think it's easy to like get into a habit of being like, oh, look at all this negative stuff that people do and, you know, make fun of it a little bit. And it provides some really fun commentary, but at the same time, you have to like allow people to process that and change and get better from it.

Melissa Perri (39m 22s):

And most of the companies that I have worked with, like have, so I reflect on that a lot and I did ended up going back and like having that edited out of the talk and everything. Cause I realized like, yeah, I don't want to portray that company like that. This is the beginning of their journey they're going to learn. And they have learned, I like, I keep in touch with them. They're doing fantastic. Now they have learned through doing great. Now they got out of some bad habits, but everybody deserves some change process. And, and that's why we, we kind of took, took a step back and, and redid this with this, with, with this story.

Mark Graban (39m 56s):

Yeah. Well, I'm glad you reached out and, you know, brought that up and I was happy to redo a second episode and, and, you know, kind of empathetic to the situation, you know, because again, I've slightly younger me love to write blog posts that would go on a rant about, you know, some organizations highlighted in the wall street journal and to them lean office means putting tape around the staplers on everybody's desk and banning family photos and saying, you're not allowed to put a sweater on the back of your chair. Now. I think that's all nonsense and it's ridiculous. And I could write a ranty blog post about it, but what then, you know, at some point I stepped back and just kind of reflected a little bit on, like, I think getting that off my chest and allowing some readers who were in the node to also feel superior by reading and looking down on this other company.

Mark Graban (40m 50s):

I I'd like to think I do a lot less of that. And, you know, I wrote a book with a bunch of other authors called Practicing Lean, which was kind of from the spirit of like you were saying, everyone's on a journey when I was early in my journey. I did things that older me might have written a ranty blog post about. And so it was just, you know, having other people share their stories about the mistakes they've made early in their career. I think as a reminder, it's a continual reminder to myself to try to be a little bit more kind when people are trying they're, well-intended hopefully they're learning things like when their employees start pushing back and saying, that's BS that I can't have a family photo on the desk.

Mark Graban (41m 31s):

Like I would, you know? Yeah. That's, that's, that's my view on that. So that's why, you know, I appreciate that. We could at least have some of that discussion about, as you put it being careful about naming names and, and sharing examples. What's the spirit or the context

Melissa Perri (41m 47s):

Of the story. So

Mark Graban (41m 50s):

This has been beating myself up for mistakes, but no, that's not the name of the podcast, but I'm glad we could explore that a little bit, Melissa. Cause we, we, for, for the audience, we, we had talked before recording, like, do we just pretend that never happened? Or could we talk about it? But I think what you shared I'm I'm, I'm glad we could talk about that a little bit.

Melissa Perri (42m 11s):

Me too.

Mark Graban (42m 13s):

And if it was a mistake I could have just edited it out, but I don't think we're going to now.

Melissa Perri (42m 18s):

I think we're good. I think we're good this time. All right.

Mark Graban (42m 21s):

So our guest again has been Melissa Perri. You can learn about all the different things she does for websites, Melissa I'll link to it in the show notes. Again, her book is Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value. And her podcast is Product Thinking with Melissa Perri. I didn't say that very smoothly. You say the word product all the time… Product Thinking with Melissa Perri. Melissa, thank you for being a guest and thank you for suffering through my mistakes while you kind of reflect and share on some of your favorites.

Melissa Perri (42m 53s):

Thanks for having me.

Mark Graban (42m 54s):

Well, thank you again to Melissa Perri for being a great guest today, to learn more about her and her book and work and more go to As always. I want to thank you for listening. I hope this podcast inspires you to reflect on your own mistakes, how you can learn from them or turn them into a positive I've had listeners tell me that they started being more open and honest about mistakes in their work. And they're trying to create a workplace culture where it's safe to speak up about problems because that leads to more improvement and better business results. If you have feedback or a story to share, you can email me And again, our website is

Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. He is also a Senior Advisor and Director of Strategic Marketing with the healthcare advisory firm, Value Capture.