Product Marty Cagan

Product vs. Policy

Most people today know that when we refer to “product,” we mean that in a very holistic sense.  It’s not just the code.  It’s not just the user interface.  It’s not just the app.  It is meant to reflect the full customer experience.  Online and offline.  Customer facing and customer enabling.

That said, I don’t think I’ve written enough about the non-code aspects of product.  And especially over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that many otherwise strong product leaders do not fully understand the role of these other aspects.

So what I wanted to highlight in this article is the role of policy.  

Now, to be very clear, I view policy as an integral aspect of product, so I’m not trying to contrast product and policy.  Rather, I want to call out and highlight the key role that policy plays in our products.

We have all been witnessing Elon Musk getting a crash course in the role of policy.  Unfortunately, we have all been witnessing not only his education, but his values. 

As painful as this has been to watch, it has served as a remarkably clear example of the impact of policy on the product, the impact of the company’s values on that policy, and the impact of the company’s leadership on the company’s values.

But this article is not about Twitter.  That’s just an egregious example of the role of policy in product. But it’s important to recognize that essentially every product has policy.

For the vast majority of products out there, policy plays a relatively minor role, and it’s simply referred to as business rules.

These rules are usually pretty pedestrian.  Things like tax rates – or even whether you collect taxes.  Merchandise return policies.  Do I need to provide a credit card in order to book a table for a party of 10 at a restaurant?  Can I then cancel that reservation without a penalty? Will we share the data we collect?

But in some products, the policy can be extremely consequential.  

When handled appropriately by the product organization, the policy is an integral part of the offering, and in providing the desired value to customers:

  • Or even controversial capabilities such as Uber’s surge pricing can actually improve the health of a marketplace.

But in too many companies, the product organization has not taken policy seriously enough, and the consequences can be seriously damaging, or even tragic:

  • You’ve all seen the role of policy plays in content moderation systems like Twitter.
  • Lest we forget what happens when API access policy is not taken seriously, as was the case with the Facebook API and Cambridge Analytica.

One of the challenges of policy is that it’s usually necessary at the product organization level, as the product team level is usually too granular.  It generally needs to be addressed at the same level as the product vision and product strategy.  That is, it applies to all the product teams in that business.

As head of product at early eBay, in addition to leaders of the major pillars of the marketplace (e.g. buyers, sellers, platform), I also had a very smart VP Policy reporting directly to me.  And I remember that the policy topics were not easy in any sense.

But hopefully more product leaders will learn the lessons from the many visible policy failures out there, and take the policy topic as seriously as necessary.