Matthew Andrews
Product Manager ・ Software Engineer ・ Executive MBA Graduate ・ Tokyo Resident

Platform Products: Shared Responsibility vs. Gatekeeper vs. Custodian

My previous post, 3 things any digital product team can do to build better products, generated a passionate and robust rebuttal from a close colleague who I deeply respect.

In my post I argued that no matter how successful or dysfunctional your team, there are always three things any team can do better. In prioritised order these are: talk directly to real customers, test product concepts with customers and release incrementally.

My colleague rightly pointed out this can result in a single-minded focus only on the parts of a product the end customer sees, which can lead teams to neglect the shared platforms multiple product teams depend on.

In my experience the way those platforms are managed tend to match one of the following patterns below, which I’ve written in order of increasing maturity and efficacy:-

Shared responsibility

Imagine ten factories surrounding a lake. Each factory relies on clean water to operate. But each could choose either to properly clean their waste water or save money and not clean it before discharging back into the lake. When driven by one short term goal, to maximise profit, the factories may choose to neglect their responsibility to keep the lake clean until none can operate and they all lose money.

When it works

  • At the beginning when a need for a platform-like capability is still emerging.
  • With small, very mature teams that are able to exercise strong self-discipline.
  • When teams are not being rushed and don’t feel they need to cut corners.

Gatekeeper

The lake is now polluted. The factories have all shutdown. The local economy has collapsed. The government have appointed a powerful new Lake Management Authority, who will solely be responsible for discharging and extracting any water to and from the lake to ensure it remains clean for the benefit of all.

It takes significant effort to put in and maintain those strict controls but resources are limited — there’s only so much the factories can pay for water access and still remain profitable. Innovative but uncertain new uses of the lake struggle to get attention because the authority is already behind on meeting existing demands. Water access drifts to larger, richer, more powerful factories. The economy still grows but not up to its potential. Some factories discuss moving to another lake further upstream, outside of the jurisdiction of the Lake Management Authority.

When it works

  • When the need for the platform has clearly emerged.
  • For platforms in a state of disrepair during a recovery phase.
  • Where there’s value to protect the platform from the pressure to cut corners from product team.

Custodian

Recognising the economic impact of the strict control over lake management, the Lake Management Authority loosen their control. Their role changes gatekeeper to custodian, working in collaboration with rather than in conflict with factories. The authority retains power to approve or deny lake access but empowers factories to take greater responsibility for extracting and discharging water. Innovative uses of the lake emerge more quickly, the cost to protect the lake falls and the economy grows. The lake stays clean.

When it works

  • Where there’s strong communication between platform and product teams.
  • Where it’s possible to scale the platform improvements by empowering product teams to take some responsibility for developing them, with oversight from the custodians.
  • The system can tolerate and recover from occasional ‘damage’ that is inevitable due to the less strict oversight.