Pruning to Prosper: Lessons from Chilli Peppers to Product Leaders

Posted By - Geoff Watts


I’m far from green-fingered and while I love nature, the last time I really did any gardening was getting on for 40 years ago in my grandparents back garden. They used to grow a lot of their own food and I would regularly plant and harvest the potatoes, vegetables and herbs…some say child labour, some say grounding and bonding.

So when a friend of mine sent me some chilli plant seeds to grow I wondered if those old skills were still there. This little experiment led me to draw some unexpected parallels between nurturing chilli plants and effective product leadership

So I’m here to draw some parallels between growing chilli plants and providing effective product leadership because both require difficult decisions around pruning.

Caveat: Please don’t read this expecting me to be an expert in horticulture 🙂

I couldn’t find a photo of me and my Grandmother gardening so this is an AI generated representation

The Art of Pruning: Gardening and Product Management

In gardening, as in product management, growth doesn’t always happen ideally on its own. A chilli plant, much like a product backlog or roadmap, needs judicious pruning. Each shoot and bud demands energy, and with finite resources, a gardener, like a product leader, must decide where to invest for the best growth.

So to help the plant channel its limited energy resources in the best way, the gardener will proactively remove relative energy drains.

What do I mean by a “relative energy drain”?

Every branch and bud has the potential to be good but some have more potential than others. If the plant spends its energy on all those with low levels of potential, those with higher potential will be starved.

So some decisions need to be made.

Funnily enough, some time after starting my chilli plant experiment I read a book called Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud (shout out to my friend Kim Morgan for sending it my way). In it, Cloud also uses the analogy of horticulture to talk about the need for pruning in the world of business and one’s personal life.

He describes three situations where pruning can be beneficial (or necessary):

  1. Healthy but Not the Best: Pruning may be required when something is good but not the best. These could be activities, relationships, or strategies that are not necessarily bad but are not the most beneficial or aligned with one’s goals.
  2. Sick and Not Recovering: Cloud suggests pruning when something is sick and not likely to recover. This applies to projects, ideas, or business ventures that, despite efforts, are not improving or contributing to success.
  3. Dead and Taking Up Space: Sometimes, an aspect of life or work is no longer alive or functional. These dead elements take up resources and space that could be used more effectively elsewhere.

Points 2 and 3 are arguably the easiest to come to terms with (if we are open to seeing them for what they are which isn’t always the case).

But Point 1 is the most difficult. It’s difficult to prune something that we know is healthy.

But the experienced gardener doesn’t focus on what she is losing but rather focuses on what that enables. By removing that “relative energy drain” more resources are made available for “the best”.

Pruning in Practice: A Product Leader’s Strategy

What’s this got to do with Product?

Well most product leaders I come across are typically overwhelmed with all of the requirements, requests, needs, ideas and enhancements. These may be potential items (so on a backlog or roadmap) or already “live”. And yet the act of pruning is often something procrastinated over or deprioritised.

Decluttering the product backlog

With a little effort and courage, a few of your backlog or roadmap items could easily be identified as falling into the “Dead and taking up space” – just get rid of these obsolete items that won’t add value or align to the strategy. Indeed some ideas or features can actually reduce the value of a product for our users so don’t add them in the first place. Check out this article on Slashing Your Product Backlog for more tips on this.

Streamlining the product itself

With a little more effort we can look at some items that are “Sick and not recovering”. This could be technical debt or maybe features that are becoming more obsolete or less valuable. Things that are negatively impacting the user experience or making it harder to maintain or expand. Pruning these involves confronting the endowment effect and the IKEA effect and other cognitive biases.

Then it comes to the most difficult area. Removing the “Healthy but not the best” items. Start with the potential features first. Every item on your product backlog or roadmap requires energy to manage (fitting it into the evolving timelines, managing stakeholder expectations, making technical decisions to keep options open for when it comes etc)

Optimise your time

As well as pruning the backlog and the roadmap, this mindset can also apply to where you spend your time. I’ve never known a product leader who hasn’t had too much to do in the time available to them. Perhaps you prune your active stakeholders. Perhaps you delegate more tasks so you can focus on the more important ones. Perhaps you cut the least important meetings from your calendar so you can be more present for the best

It can be difficult to cut away something that is healthy and good

Difficult but Necessary Pruning

Great product leaders are ruthless in their focus on value and optimal use of energy. It’s easy to think about what you’re losing but it’s not just about what you’re cutting away; it’s about what you’re enabling to flourish.

Free yourself up, get out your secateurs and focus on what gives you the greatest potential return on your resources. Prune wisely, focus your energy, and watch your products grow stronger and more vibrant.

You never know what spicy things you could end up with.

A chicken, grape and (homemade) chilli wrap
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