Product Management Insights from The Martian

I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir. I had seen it on a few product management reading lists, and it was the perfect book to kick off my book-a-week personal development goal for 2016. The Martian recounts Mark Watney’s accidental abandonment on Mars, and the steps he takes to live long enough to get off of the planet. Watney is a diehard botanist who just also happens to be an astronaut, and he uses his entire skill set to survive Mars.

The Martian was an immediate winner within the tech community. Reading about simple action plans to solve complex problems rang a bell with product managers and software engineers alike. After seeing it referenced in many product manager conversations, I was inspired to break it down and lay out The Martian product management lessons.

Mark Watney is a problem solver at heart and overcomes many obstacles with an easygoing manner. Here are a few quick lessons from the book:

The Martian Product Management Lessons: Launching a product is like getting off of Mars

This may sound a little extreme, but within the first few pages of the book, we understand one thing: Watney is focused on the desired outcome. He needs to make contact with Earth so that he can get off of Mars. Product managers can relate: launching a product and surviving Mars may both seem unachievable at face value. What’s necessary is to create manageable milestones that can be individually tackled in order to achieve the end result.

So, what is your project’s overall goal? Is it to create an MVP to gain customer feedback? Is it to reconstruct a legacy system to bring it up to modern software standards? First you’ve got to know and understand the goal, then you can break it into manageable steps.

Watney knows that the only chance he has to survive Mars is to break complex problems into manageable ones and individually tackle them.

1. Focus on the immediate problem

Getting yourself off of a planet when you’re presumed dead and no one is planning to rescue you is a pretty complex problem. While Watney understands and respects the total complexity of this challenge, he doesn’t let the complexity swallow him. He knows that he’s going to need to solve one problem at a time.

Watney utilizes a specific workflow in each situation. He does not allow the next problem to distract him from the one that’s directly in front of him. Take this excerpt where Watney uses duct tape to stop a leak in his spacesuit after blowing a seal in an airlock:

I have duct tape in my toolbox. Let’s slap some on and see if it slows the flow. I wonder how long it will last before the pressure rips it…Readouts say the pressure is stable. Looks like the duct tape made a good seal. Let’s see if it holds… It’s been fifteen minutes and the tape is still holding. Looks like that problem is solved… All right. On to my next problem.

The seal with the airlock is definitely a big problem, and it’s definitely something that needs to be fixed. But he will have to fix his leaky spacesuit first, or he won’t even get that far.

We see this happen all the time with software development. Team members want to move onto the “fun” problems without solving the “necessary” problems first. Does a critical bug need to be fixed prior to moving onto the next feature? Make sure your team is laser-focused on that problem and not getting distracted by future features.

2. Change your way of thinking

Conventional wisdom can move you forward but will only get you so far. [Spoiler alert: Watney does contact Earth.] NASA relies on conventional wisdom to devise a plan to get the astronaut supplies to last until a rescue mission can reach him. It doesn’t work.

However, little-known engineer Rich Purnell has an unconventional idea and has to deploy an unconventional strategy to put this backup plan into action. Purnell was an engineer with a creative way of looking at problems, and the perspective to look outside of the conventional wisdom machine. He wasn’t a director or vice president. His personality and environment allowed him to have the creative flexibility to look at Watney’s predicament in a unique way.

3. Sometimes unconventional thinking comes from the least likely places…

Purnell, our hero engineer, is described as socially awkward and was often secluded to his desk. He wasn’t invited to the planning meetings where Watney’s rescue was being planned. He comes up with a creative maneuver to save Watney from the confines of his cubicle.

Teams can often become subconsciously focused on allowing a certain team members to solve all of the problems that they face. Create ways to solicit communication from different sources. Ask questions of your team that inspire creative thinking. Value everyone’s opinion. Does a recently-hired junior engineer want to take a stab at a complex problem? Let them. He or she may not solve the problem immediately, but they can help the team to think about the problem in new ways.

Overall, keep The Martian on your reading list for this year. It’s a quick read that explores one man’s will to survive by solving complex problems in surprisingly simple ways. Oh, and it’ll give you a good laugh.

More Posts by Sean Rowland: