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Lessons Learned from Bhutan and Nepal: Part 1 – Product Thoughts

The two of us recently completed a fun trip with a small group to Bhutan after visiting Nepal on our own.

The country is amazing and everything we had hoped for. Bhutan is a mainly Buddhist country and their philosophy and approach to life permeated so much of our trip. It gave us inspiration to share a few lessons we learned along the way and try to relate them to product and process work.

A shortcut is not always faster.

One of the most famous sites in Bhutan (if not the world) is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Reaching it requires a steep climb of 3000 feet, which was daunting in part because of the altitude. Our group had 8 people in it and our guide was behind us helping one woman arrange for a horse to ride partway up (slacker!). Given our guide wasn’t present, 3 of us in the lead hit a crossroad. Not knowing which way to go, we followed a group of hikers in front of us as they took a route to the right and up. The opposite way to the left seemed to lead away from our destination so we went right. A hiker in the group ahead said it was a shortcut – and by that point we were tired enough that a shortcut sounded wonderful!

Well, we found out later that the shortcut was also steeper! And more tiring! Some of the slower hikers behind us went the “long” way and got to the meeting point much faster and were less tired. The longer way was flatter with a more gradual climb and easier footing.

So, the moral of this point is that when we are tempted to take shortcuts, be sure to get enough facts or data to help you make an intelligent choice. How many times on projects have we taken or been tempted to take shortcuts? They often result in rework and missed requirements. We can miss a crucial business need or overlook someone’s expectation by the need to move quickly. Organization pressures to develop solutions quickly tempt us into shortcuts, but the point is that we need to be mindful when deciding to take them.

Richard Larson 1

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Some, but not all change is good.

Although Bhutanese people like to maintain their culture and keep it intact far more than other countries we’ve been to, they also embrace modern technology. For example, they don’t allow western franchises like McDonalds or KFC. But they have eagerly taken advantage of wi-fi and cellular technology. Monks in centuries-old monasteries use cell phones and laptops but they didn’t walk around with Starbuck’s cups. In other words, they have embraced some change, but rejected other changes that run counter to their cultural norms.

 DSC3482 Edited Monk on Cell Phone Small

For product management, it is a good reminder that not all change is equal. We all know that product features need to be prioritized. But, how often do people have difficulty prioritizing them? (Answer: often!) This lesson is not a magic answer for how to prioritize. Instead, perhaps in the spirit of Bhutanese Buddhists, we need to ask: “Are we fulfilling the organization’s strategy with this feature or that requirement?” “Are we any worse off if we don’t make this particular change?” “What will the future be like if we add this function? If we do not add it?”

If these questions sound a bit like traceability, they should. We need to be asking these types of questions no matter what type of product or project approach in place. Instead of asking “how important is this new feature?” Maybe we should be asking “how might we benefit without it?”

No Hurry No Worry.

We all know errors happen when we rush things, but that’s not what we are referring to here. The roads in Bhutan were filled not with billboards but cogent sayings like “No Hurry No Worry” which appealed greatly to our group. It was a pleasant reminder that hurrying through a task or sprint or project is not helpful but can lead to errors and rework. That doesn’t mean we should tarry either. Instead it might mean rather than hurrying to build solutions, we should remember why we are doing the work we do. What is the higher purpose of it? What business objective or public policy does our work serve?

A “no hurry” approach might cause us to dig a little deeper to find the root causes of problems to help us generate better and more effective solutions. One of the authors personally objects to the concept of “satisficing,” which has made the rounds in Agile circles. Proponents of this notion believe that finding the first viable solution to a problem that “satisfies” and is “sufficient” will be good enough. We understand the appeal, but it doesn’t provide time enough to understand and to get to know the problem well enough to build lasting solutions. The satisficing approach may or may not get to the same end point eventually, but will usually take more time and expense of reworking solutions to get there.

In summary, our trip to a Buddhist country gave us many opportunities for refection. We wanted to share some and relate them to product and process work. (Check out our follow-up article inspired by Bhutan that focuses on process.) Here are some “mantras” for you to consider in your work:
1. Shortcuts can be long cuts.
2. Not all change is good.
3. “No Hurry No Worry”


Written by: Richard Larson and Elizabeth Larson

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