Product guy – know your theories

Aristotle shutterstock_112275572 500px wide

Every product looks like a winner at the time of its inception. It’d better. What would be the point otherwise? Unfortunately, between the go-decision and the delivery date, things tend to change. Even if the plan would hold – and that’s a big if – the world around the product will surely change. That is not all bad news because conquering the uncertainty and delivering the better future is a part of the thrill. It’d be so boring to have the perfect crystal ball (well, not really, but let’s move on).

“Is that a fact? Or an opinion?”

By definition, the uncertainty also means that there are, strictly speaking, no facts about the future. Only opinions. And probabilities. Yet product decisions have to be made.

An easy way out is to declare opinions as facts. The product guy can declare, as the urban legend goes about one Nokia exec: “Yes, for me this is an opinion. But for you, dear team, this is a fact. So just go do”.

That kind of works. Sometimes. But for most people because of luck, not skill.

A better way is to do the hard work and think your way through. But not factually, because that is not really possible because there are no facts, remember.  The product guy must think conceptually, and for that some simple theories can provide the framework.

Theories are useful because surprisingly often you don’t need to know the exact number. You just need to know whether your parameter is more or less than something that the competitors are likely to have or what consumers would expect. Or whether your product will provide more of the same, or something different. In other words, a good theory can give answers that math can’t.

Knowing which side of the gravity you are, or which ballpark you plan to play at, will often be enough, because at the end, everything in the market place is relative and contextual. In absolute terms, the E.T. looks like a cheaply manufactured plastic toy (a direct quote from my 12-year old goddaughter this Christmas). But what really matters is that in 1982, when the movie came out, it looked as real (or more real) than the movie aliens that had passed the audience test before. And, more importantly, the E.T. wasn’t the umpteenth science-fiction story about inter-galactic heroes in colorful tights, but a new kind of heartwarming story about a lonely boy who finds a new friend (Ed. note: This is a long post, so fully okay to have a small break here in case you get emotional)

Old skool theories rule

Now, I don’t want to take away anything from the How-to and 7-steps (upgraded to 10 with the emergence of the internets) type of books (especially if I end up writing one of those one day) but for product work it is a good idea to keep the theory base simple. The review meeting tends to be long enough, even without the one-hour theory class up front.

Old theories have not only the odd chance of people knowing them already (meaning, saving time), but also tend to have survived the test of time. For example, the insightful wisdoms of great Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates have remained relevant for millenniums. The simple persuasion principles of ethos, pathos and logos have aided great speakers from William Wallace and Bill Clinton to Herb Brooks.

Great theories also, unlike for example Police Academy movies, get better over time, including the time after death. Once, one particular Nokia EVP declared in one strategy sharing: “There is only one management guru I believe in, and he is Peter Drucker……and he is dead.” To this day it is unsure whether he trusted him because he is dead, and hence can’t change his mind, or because Drucker’s theories outlive the guy himself. I believe the latter. That may not be just luck. Peter.F Drucker (1909-2005) honed his theories over 60 years from the time of pre-WWII to post-war to industrial revolution and all the way to the information revolution, teaching his last class in 2002 at the age of 92.

Also keeping it simple worked for Rocky Balboa. He did beat Ivan Drago at Russian turf, with the good old training technique of carrying logs and doing sit-ups at the barn. And an inspirational playlist.

Last, Aristotle was again ahead of this time when he believed logos (logic, reason) is most often the foundation. Again, that’s not to say all three wouldn’t be important. It is just that the people who occupy the Corporate Board Room tend to have an alpha dog personality. They do want to see the product guy display passion – eye of the tiger and burning heart – but at the end, they need the product guy to provide foremost the logos. That’s because they themselves are happy to provide the pathos and ethos when the time for the product launch or the hero article in Fortune comes.

Choosing your theories

You need to decide yourself what is your playbook. What matters as much is that you, the product guy, have done your homework on the theories you choose. You may not need to be lecturing them into your nineties, but you need to know them well enough to be able to apply them in your own thinking and in your own argumentation logic.

In my years at Nokia, I learned to use four core theories:

  • 4P’s – Product, Price, Place, Promotion. This split of marketing mix – actually not invented by Philip Kotler, the author of Marketing Management, but by a guy called Jerome McCarthy in the 60’s – is as classic as it gets, and one of the (rare) things that I actually remembered from the Business School. True to the nature of marketing, there are so many variations (7P, 4C) that it can get confusing. Hence, I use this theory mostly as a checklist to remember to direct my attention holistically. For anyone with a geeky streak, it’s so easy to get carried away with the Product P and think that all the other P’s fall into place afterwards somehow. They usually don’t. And by the time you notice that you may have locked some of the product parameters – such as design or component list (i.e. Bill of Material) – making the sales and marketing job the equivalent of trying to cast Leslie Nielsen into a serious role.
  • Technology adoption cycle. This simple social behavior model puts some bones on why the product guy’s excitement over some thing is often met with a blank stare from the sales guy. I have found out that theory holds well in the mobile and consumer electronics in general. There’s an evolution of the theory called “chasm theory” by Geoffrey Moore. I have found that useful too, though with the caveat that it is easy to mistake the differences in context with the differences in need between the segments (see e.g. my post about QWERTY users and their need for smartphone).
  • Disruptive innovation theory. All good will come to an end at some point, or at least carrying it too long can result in this “yeah…I am supposed to be wowed but I am not “ feeling that can be borderline embarrassing, like watching Bud Fox/Charlie Sheen cameo in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”. I’ve found Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theories to be really helpful in understanding the dynamics as industries mature and collide, resulting in multiple ways to “get the job done”. Compared with the previous theories, the disruption theory is much newer and much more complicated to apply. Hence, like in the case of Nokia Nseries being steamrolled over by Apple, I’ve been able to use this theory mainly in the Flash Forward or the C.S.I. way (i.e. to reconstruct what is about to happen or decipher what did just happen) than in the Armageddon way (i.e. to prevent it from happening).
  • The DVD minibox of Band of Brothers. This is my choice, but you may interchange it to any story about respect and humility, provided by your favorite religion, book, movie or TV-series. Further, as an anti-gun, anti-war type of guy, I definitively do not want compare the horrors of war with the cozy life of modern corporate world. Yet I feel the importance of personal reflection about one’s own role in any challenging endeavor comes across well in the quote from Major Dick Winters:

Winters quoted a passage from a letter he received from Sergeant Mike Ranney, “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No… but I served in a company of heroes.'”


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – make one scoreboard (scheduled when ready)


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10 Responses to Product guy – know your theories

  1. marytmcd says:

    The one movie I would add is “Twelve Angry Men,” with passionate product guy playing the Henry Fonda part. The product reviews that stand out in my memory are ones in which a passionate product guy (you know, the type that is never physically separated from their prototypes–which is a bigger commitment when you’re making servers) sways the room full of skeptical veterans based on new insights or logic. Making great products is ultimately a leap of faith so you’re right that the early stage evangelism needs to be grounded in some sort of framework otherwise the rhetoric is about as meaningful as a politician’s promise.

  2. Thanks JP for sharing the post. I am a big fan of Aristoteles myself and firmly believe getting all three – ethos, pathos and logos – right is absolutely key for the product guy. The context will define how you build your ethos, pathos and logos. Most engineers (a breed of people I proudly belong to by the way so no engineer should feel offended here) typically focus only on logos and even there on the narrow part of the technical excitement … meaning that such tiny issues like how you actually do business may be forgotten. Dragon’s den episodes provide plenty of good examples and study material on this one!

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  4. JP, Thank you so much for this series. Jotting down the hidden wisdom of managing a embedded software driven product is of gargatuan value and you (and some others) need eventually to take your time to write the book (and keep it at 100 pages).

    As you asked for direction, what I really would like to hear your take on is the decision of the winning product features or content: There is the “Let’s ask the customers what they want” (faster horse) way and “My opinion is your fact” way but what would be valuable is to look deeper into the ways how to crystallize the product vision and how to make sure customers will want it. And moving forward from that, how to move up crystallizing the product portfolio and branding making sure the customers continue to want the products. And then disrupt your own portfolio as the environment changes.

    • Thanks Jyrki. I do think having the right theory goes a long way. Because there’s never certainty but probability, and theory helps you to maximize your odds for being lucky. But I agree that it too high-level of a picture for day-to-day pragmatic decision-making. Your comment, and one e-mail comment I got, caused me to write down a header placeholder called “product guy – (dare to) dream living other people’s lives”. Let’s see if it grows into a post…

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