Pass the Pringles
How success in Uno, like success in product strategy, is a bit of Skill + Luck + Strategy
If there was a Spotify Year in Review for board games, mine would say Uno. Our family has played thousands of games of Uno over the past year. These aren’t just friendly games played over the dining table. Each and every one of us plays to win. And don’t count out the four year old — she wins just as much as the rest of us.
Are we adults that bad??? Or is she an Uno wunderkind??? Despite the game’s age 7 and up rating, I don’t think either of those is the answer.
What I’ve learned is that success in Uno, like success in product strategy, is a bit of skill, luck and strategy. Here’s what I mean.
Skill is the capabilities that your company or team has. In Uno, skill is represented by the cards that you possess. My six year old feels disappointed when he is stuck with a hand of all greens, while my four year old excitedly announces, “I have good cards,” when she has some wilds or +4s thrown into the mix. No matter their reaction to seeing their cards, it doesn’t change the cards they were dealt.
The analogous situation at work could mean that you have all junior engineers and nobody senior to help guide the team, or lots of engineers and no designers. The latter was a real life case that I’ve faced. My team was short on designers, so I had to ruthlessly prioritize the times that I asked for support from design. It’s amazing what you can do with screenshots and cropping to reuse page elements, and create your own mocks. It was good enough to get the job done and convey to the engineering team how to build out the UX of an internal facing feature. I couldn’t change the resourcing that I had at that moment, so I had to put my head down and play with the hand that I had.
Luck is what you can’t control. You can’t control what cards you get and you certainly can’t control your competitors’ actions. But the lack of control and those mean +4 cards almost ruined the game for our family. Each time the kids had a “mean card” played on them, they felt targeted and whined about how unfair it was. To end the incessant whining and teach them not to fear what they can’t control, I invented a new game: Pringles Uno. It’s exactly like regular Uno except that whenever someone plays a “mean card” on you, the recipient of the mean card gets a Pringle. Those divine, irresistible, flavor-packed sour cream and onion crisps saved Uno for us. No longer did they experience fear and dread when they received a mean card. That element of luck (and delicious Pringles) is what makes playing Uno addictive and fun.
The popular app Clubhouse first launched in March 2020. Its timing could not be better. Everyone was stuck at home with limited entertainment options and the unmet desire to connect with others. Clubhouse had no control over the COVID pandemic, but benefited from the pandemic creating conditions that encouraged users to flood to their product. Clubhouse was lucky to be the right product at the right time. Luck can work for or against you, but always remember the Pringles — don’t fear what you can’t control.
Strategy is taking the hand that you have and playing cards at the right time to get the best result out of the hand you have. Each time you take a turn in Uno, you have to make a decision on which card to play. Do you use your wild to change colors, or save the wild for another time and pick up a new card? Do you use your reverser to change the direction of play to flow to the right, or does your competitor on the left have a dreaded +2 card to play on you? Each time my four year old was faced with these decisions, her preference for me, her BFF, would lead her to decide not to play her mean cards on me. Eventually, the rest of the family caught onto her pattern. They learned how their competitors’ played and adjusted their strategy by not letting us sit next to each other.
When I led the mobile team at Care.com, we wanted to grow mobile app downloads. We started by understanding how families and providers were already using our products — when were they downloading the app, what features were they using on the app vs. web,… From these learnings, we came up with our strategy to target users at key moments and crisply articulate the key benefit that they would get by downloading the app. We grew app downloads by more than 50% YoY without adding budget or team members. We played the hand that we had to win.
Play the Game to Win
Most importantly, you have to play the game if you want a chance to win. Just because you won today doesn’t mean that you’re the best player and you’ll always win. Similarly, just because you lost today doesn’t mean that you’re the worst player and should stop playing. As a Product Manager, come up with the best product strategy to build products that serve the customer better than your competitor’s products with the skills that you have today, keep playing to see what luck unfolds, and iterate on your product strategy. Now, who’s up for a competitive game of Uno? Just don’t forget to pass the Pringles.
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