Frames of Reference

escher-stairs2.jpgYou’ve heard of the Doppler Effect right? No, not the Doppleganger Effect, but the Doppler Effect. Probably the most common example of the Doppler Effect is experienced when a vehicle with a siren approaches and then passes you on a street. The pitch of the siren decreases suddenly as the vehicle passes you. Of course, to the driver inside the vehicle, there is no change in pitch. And to the person on the street that hasn’t been passed by the vehicle, the pitch has yet to change.

The Doppler effect is fundamentally about frames of reference. The frames of reference of the observers in the street are very different than that of the driver. Thus, they perceive and experience the same physical phenomenon (in this case the siren), quite differently.

So, what does this have to do with Product Management? Everything.

Being an effective product manager means, being able to get into the frames of reference of others, understand their experiences, needs and wants, and then assimilate that information and convey the necessary information to those around you who need it. If you can’t do that, then your product or release may get reinterpreted many times over by each team involved. One of the most famous examples of this problem is the famous tire swing series of cartoons.


Try something. When you are at work at your desk, get a chair and stand up on it (or stand on your desk if that is safe) and survey the area around you. Does it look different? What do you see from that frame of reference that you never noticed before?

Subtle changes in frames of reference can have a big impact on what you observe and what you understand. Consider people who work in data centers. To some, the most important part of the data center are the servers executing code. To others it is wiring, network cabling and switches that connect those servers to each other. To others it is the storage that holds all the data needed by the servers and transmitted over the network. To others, it is the cooling systems in the data center, without which the servers would overheat and shutdown. Each has their own priorities and their own frame of reference by which they view the data center.

The same is true inside the enterprise. Different teams view the world very differently. A CFO is focussed on net profit and loss and booking revenue. A VP of Sales is more focused on booking sales. Revenue and profitability are secondary concerns. A VP of Engineering is focused on delivering quality product on time. While each of these people are typically very concerned about the success of the company, their focus means they view success differently. Product Managers need to understand the differing frames of reference, and then be able to shift between frames as they work with members of different groups.

When I first became a Product Manager, I was having a tough time dealing with a number of the sales people in my company. I didn’t understand why communicating with them was so difficult. When I spoke to the VP of sales about the issues with his sales team, he gave me some advice.

Salespeople are coin-operated. Remember that, and you’ll have no problem working with them.

I took his advice and it worked wonders for my relationship with the sales team. Why? Because I stopped talking to them from the perspective of a Product Manager, and started communicating with them in their own language and in their frame of reference.