It can be easy for a subject matter expert to think that they can speak from a position of authority on a given topic and whilst this is often true it is rare that a single perspective can provide the full picture of what is involved. Pulling together that picture is the product manager's role as I shall demonstrate in this latest article.

Truth cylinders

Let's consider a truth cylinder (Google "truth cylinder" for a helpful image). Imagine that we have an empty room save for a short cylinder suspended in mid-air at head height and two people looking at it. Person A is stood at the end of the cylinder looking along its length, and Person B is stood to one side of the cylinder and looking at it in profile.

Person A, perhaps a private practice lawyer, won't see a cylinder, but a circle and may therefore assume that they are looking at a sphere. Person B, perhaps someone in business, will see a square and assume that they are looking at a cube. The reality, though is that everyone is looking at a cylinder.`

This is a great metaphor for explaining the challenges that product managers need to address when developing legal technology (or any other technology) in a few ways.

Assumptions derive from perspectives

It is a good illustration of how a person's perspective can lead them to make certain assumptions. In place of the room, let's substitute a client of the lawyer's at which the business person works and, in place of the cylinder, let's substitute the process that the client needs to follow to comply with a piece of regulation. From the lawyer's perspective, they may see a professional legal or compliance team that is motivated, efficient and understands the regulation. On the contrary, from the business person's perspective, they may see bureaucracy, process and the day-to-day administration that they need to put in place to comply with the regulation.

The problem here is that each of our protagonists will make assumptions about the whole process based on their limited exposure and prior experience. The lawyer may assume that the client, having a good understanding of the regulation, has all its processes in order and that everything is functioning perfectly. The business person may assume that they can get away with retrofitting an existing process to meet new legal requirements. 

In reality, many assumptions are being made here, and as a product manager, it is important to filter out those assumptions and focus on facts. Reverting to our cylinder, the only evident facts based on people's perspectives are a circle and a square. This brings me to the second challenge.

Reconciling perspectives

Reconciling these two perspectives is hard. This is often the role of in-house counsel, and the output can, amongst other things, be policy, process or procurement of a new product to address any particular needs that may arise. 

As a product manager trying to make the new product, however, with relatively little to no experience of the law and how organisations' existing processes are run, it becomes an intellectual challenge trying to learn what you can initially through study and subsequently through dialogue with each of the individuals involved (often at many different organisations). From those different accounts, you gradually build up a picture of what reality is, the jobs to be done, and the pain points we can address. With perseverance, we hopefully work out that everyone is looking at a cylinder. 

Revealing reality

Once you have learnt what you can, the final challenge is stakeholder management and demonstrating (with appropriate evidence) to everyone involved that there are no spheres or cubes in sight – just a cylinder.