Tag Archives: Product Guy

The wrap-up of Product Guy Series: Vol. 1

rollercoaster_600px shutterstockAbout two months ago I started writing Product Guy series, reflecting what I have learned over the years about making products and/or software.

I may or may not return to this topic (hence the Vol 1 in the title), but now it is time to summarize.

I didn’t have much of a master plan on the topic of the posts. I just wrote whatever was topical on my mind, either through my own reflection or through the commentary I received via multiple channels, public and private.

Now that I look back, the posts, however, do give an idea of the broad spectrum of issues Product Guy needs to deal with.

Product Guy needs to know the teachings of the wise Greek men, find his inner hipster and hone the skills of the method acting to the the Jesse Eisenberg level of markzuckerberg-ness.

And that’s just the planning part of the job. Then the actual work starts.  Being able to focus on the right things, requires having an air traffic controller -grade real-time scoreboard and a clear understanding how to move mountains. And all this must be done iteratively, which requires the wisdom to separate the signal from the noise, diligent review practices, continuous, honest assessment of own and competitor products, and unavoidably some – or a lot – of fire-fighting.

So a lot of stuff. I used a lot of Hollywood metaphors, not only because I love movies, but because I thought the analogies would capture how captivating the journey can be.

Sometimes the project is a drama. Sometimes it’s a tragedy that may border becoming a comedy. But if you put your heart into it, there’s one guarantee you can make to your team members: “It will not be boring.”

I hope you enjoyed reading.

p.s. Now Real Box Score blog will go on extended Easter break. Hence, next posts – at least any longer than 140 characters – are not to be expected before mid-April or so.

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Product Guy – eat a lot of dogfood

DogfoodProduct Guy needs to be in deep love with the product and be its fiercest cheerleader, and yet, at the same time, rationally objective and ready to cancel the project any time, if it isn’t good enough.

It’s a yet another paradox to be managed.

It is human to become too attached. The world is full of ugly people but yet we think all babies are beautiful. Of course, not equally so, because our own baby is definitively the most beautiful, the most athletic, the most skilled and, the most definitively, the most creative.

In the other extreme, no engineer or designer will follow a Product Guy who threatens to kill the project and take all the toys away, if things don’t go his/her way. Nor will they be inspired to do their best work.

The solution for staying balanced – and sane – is eating a lot of dogfood and being disciplined telling how it really tastes.

With dogfood, I mean using not only one’s own product, but also a lot of competitor products. Obvious, duh? Who would disagree? But here comes the hard part. You need to do it at times when your time is the scarcest and the products may not be that “out-of-box”-ready. Your own product may be at the prototype stage, meaning it takes a lot of effort to get anything working. And it never is enough to use the competitor product for five minutes – you need to go deep and perhaps even install their lousy PC software, which certainly conflicts somehow with your work PC settings.

But this Product Guy must do. Only this way, and with the right attitude, his/her brain is calibrated to assess how competitive the product in the making really is. The trick for time management is to prepare in advance. Set up your testing environments, processes and support already before you need them, not when every hour is precious.

The next trick is to keep some of your findings to yourself. Or at least be very deliberate with how, when and with whom they are shared. A seasoned Product Guy always has in the backpocket a set of mitigation actions, Plan B:s and a bar of kryptonite. But talking about them at the wrong time and with the wrong people – such as the dev team in a fragile mindset after finding some fundamental bug or the senior executive with the confidence of a deer in the headlights – can cause a self-fulfilling prophecy of things going really wrong.

Last, there’s a reason why using the stuff consumers also use is called “eating dogfood”, instead of, say, eating truffles, steak or ratatouille . Sometimes you need a lot of discipline to empty the cup. And come to think of it, really loving dogs helps too.

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Next Product Guy episode will wrap up the writings so far.

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Product Guy – hear your friends

basset shutterstock 600pxSome people hear but don’t really listen. That’s bad and can feel disrespectful. But for great product making, even bigger risk is a Product Guy that listens but doesn’t really hear.

Intelligent people blessed with great memorization skills, high career motivation and access to modern training courses can be trained to become extremely good ‘literal listeners’. Like the Stepford wives, they maintain eye contact, address you by your first name, bake in your words to their sentences, hold back from being negative or combative, suggest constructive actions, and make a great summary at the end. In short, they really make you feel like they ‘get’ you.

Except that absolutely nothing in their thinking, values, behaviors or actions really changes because of what you say.

That ‘sales push mode’ can be really dangerous. Because sometimes the only important takeaway from the customer feedback is that the consumer pretty much hates everything in the product, even if she never said those exact words, and even if only one (by the way, highly fixable) feature was transcripted as an epic fail.

All feedback matters, but some matters more. The Product Guy should especially hear out people with a vested interest with them. Those friends (Note: I am using the zuckerbergian definition of the word) can be voluntary pilot users, soulmate colleagues from other teams, or sales guys whose own success is dependent on the competitiveness of the product. Apart from the signs of Stockholm Syndrome in distressed times (“I am held hostage to loving this product, because it is my only way out of this mess”), it is these people who can be counted on to take the extra time to go beyond the quick & easy, anecdotal, literal comments, and tell how they truly feel.

And then, as counterintuitive as it sounds, sometimes three words (“I hear you”) and doing something differently is a better answer than a detailed, well-rehearsed point-by-point rebuttal.

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – eat a lot of dogfood

 

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Product Guy – isolate the problem

fire shutterstock_76873309 600pxOne pilot consumer wrote into the free comments “old-fashioned colors”, and now the sales guys want to change everything in the industrial design. Some integration engineer, in the late afternoon hurry to go pick up his kids in time, accidentally configured the prototype build wrong. Now, instead of asking when the new build will be ready, people email Jerry Maguire type of pamphlets about how to re-engineer the whole development process. Also, the office cafeteria can become more cozy if the whole company is re-orged and all clueless Vice Presidents (read: many) are deported, at least according to the task force memo. And so on and so forth.

Does this kind of escalation sound familiar? Probably yes, if you work in any company that is no longer small.

The root cause for all that hoopla is that, by definition, product making is full of paradoxes.  People want the product to be elegant and sophisticated but yet affordable. Full of features and yet ready early. Edgy but still familiar. Yet great products don’t feel like compromises, because there’s a clear idea what user problems the product is supposed to solve and how. Developing, protecting and delivering that  “configuration”, ”definition” or “brokering between extremely important but conflicting goals” is what Product Guys do for living.

The uncontrollable escalation, or expansion, happens because the power balance between the opposite-pulling forces is never really stable. Ultimately, what looks like a peace is really just a truce that becomes the peace agreement only when the product is out. So throughout the whole development, there’s a lot of passionate energy bubbling under (that’s a good thing), which can burst into the wide open (that’s a bad thing), if a small change somewhere (no matter how unavoidable) is interpreted as the license to re-open any other issue too.

So with this type of self-inflicted crisis looming, the first order of business for Product Guy is to isolate the problem. If the problem was the color, let’s solve that problem. And not let discussion expand how the newly proposed shiny orange would work so much better, if the design and the materials were also changed, and the price made more youth-budget-level-friendly.

Now, narrowing the discussion to solving the actual problem requires logical, deductive thinking to establish the link between the fix and the problem. It requires detailed, precise questions and communication, and in certain cases certain level of “cut-the-crap” abruptness to. In very few cases, the problem may reveal that the whole plan was flawed to start with, but even then the panic pack of band-aid is not the solution, but a total restart is needed. Most often, however, there’s a simple solution that becomes apparent only when the problem is thoroughly understood.

Being the ‘voice of reason’ when everyone is jumping off the walls isn’t fun. Those times may make the Product Guy appear like an anti-consumer, rearview-mirror looking, non-responsive bureaucrat – all labels potentially detrimental to career prospects. But still the escalation must be stopped. The way to think is that great product makers – engineers, designers and so on – need stability to be able to do their best work. They may not thank Product Guy when she/he is taking all the hits to protect them from the panic and the vicious circle of changes. But after the successful project they surely will. And that matters more than anything else.

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – hear your friends

 

 

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Product guy – review the unknown

shutterstock_117743374 - review - 600px

Running review meetings is a core Product Guy skill. Even if the trend of product-making is towards more iterative and short-cycle processes (Ed. note: I don’t use the word ‘agile’ on purpose, in order to avoid religious topics), after a certain operative scale, a holistic review process – which can be called milestone, gate, phase or whatever – is the only practical way to get a comprehensive snapshot of the progress.

Now, the corporate culture for product (or program, as some call it) reviews may vary greatly. Some are formal, some are informal. Some are dog & pony shows aimed at impressing the big chiefs, and some are checklist marathons between experts.

Yes, sometimes important decisions are done in the reviews, but not as often as people think. In real life, the engineering flow, not process chart, dictates the timing of many decisions. That, in turn, means that at the time of review, the “decision” ends up being just pretty much “take it or leave it”. (Ed. note: that too is important because ‘the power to pull the plug’ or ‘the power to change the goalposts’ gives an incentive for the engineering organization to listen to the Product Guy)

So if that’s how the world works, what’s the point of pulling those review preparation all-nighters?

First, there certainly is value in the journey. Through the journey of creating a common snapshot, more people get a better understanding how different pieces link to each other. And at best, the positive cross-team feedback increases energy and team bonding.

Second, an experienced Product Guy can add a lot of value to the review process by asking the right questions. There are times when Product Guy may need to provide the answer too, but most often the purpose is to broaden the thinking of the product team.

But what kind of questions are the ‘right questions’?

Now, some questions need to be “teed up”. They need to be like in the first few rounds in the Who Wants to be Millionaire, usually cleared with ease and growing confidence. Professionals who are properly prepared very rarely have embarrassing moments – like this and this Millionaire contestant – especially with the options of Phone-a-Friend or Ask-the-Audience readily available.

Now, it is a human temptation for the Product Guy to stay in the “nice guy” zone. But more is needed. As important as it is know the plans, it is to know what is not known. Because it is often the surprises coming from outside the plans that create the most problems. Maybe the consumer feedback sample wasn’t as representative of the whole target market as assumed. It could be that the competitors have something disruptive up their sleeves. Or the pricing assumptions on the component costs couldn’t foresee some natural disaster.

Finding out all those risks, and having a sense of the potential mitigation actions, calls for some tough questions, no matter how awesome the progress and plans are.

Now, it is hard to to tip toe that line of consciousness, like Kiefer Sutherland in Flatliners, without the line of questioning feeling arrogant and know-it-all.

There are different kind of techniques. Surely for some boneheaded project manager the Mickey Goldmill type of motivational speech could work:

Mickey: You can’t win, Rocky. This guy will kill you to death inside three rounds
Rocky: You’re crazy
Mickey: What else is new
Rocky: This guy is just another fighter
Mickey: No, he ain’t. This guy is a wrecking machine

In today’s work environment, however, I do suggest gentler methods. It is a lifelong mission to learn the skill of “soft, constructive tension”, and each Product Guy has to find their own way through using feedback and self-reflection.

At the end, however, the review objective of the Product Guy should be the same as Mickey’s – give credit for the progress so far, but more importantly, increase preparation for the next difficult things to come.

*****

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – isolate the problem

 

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Product guy – understand your levers

Archimedes_lever_(Small)Every decision Product Guy makes is important. So is every precious minute spent on any chosen topic, out of the many worthy of “Urgent!!” email header. However, some decisions are more important than others because of the leverage (interestingly, a concept invented by another theory guy, Archimedes)

Levers behave differently in different businesses and market contexts. And can be a little counterintuitive. But recognising the meaningful ones makes a world of difference.

For example, I worked in the mass market mobile phone business of Nokia, which had a massive “volume lever”. Individual mobile phone product families designed could ship in tens, and sometimes in hundreds of Millions of units. Hence, for example, any cent, or sometimes fraction of a cent, unnecessary component cost eliminated would impact profitability way more than any impressive sounding one-time cost.

High price elasticity can also be a lever. The income pyramids in different countries are very different, and being able to move down a tier can multiply the size of the addressable market.

Sometimes the important lever has nothing to with the cost, but is about ‘being the best’ or ‘being the first’. People might remember that Buzz Aldrin was the second person to step on the moon, but that’s a rare exception for the runner-ups in the collective memory of the man-kind. We also know Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon were in Apollo 13 because it was the best almost-disaster. But very few remember who were in Apollo 12.

Speaking of “Houston, we have a problem” level of catch-phrases, “easy copy & pasteability” can also be a lever. Communications and marketing people hone their materials to reach the same level of virality. Consultants and lawyers try to template-ize their work up to only needing the change the company name.

Sometimes it is the ‘partner visibility lever’ that matters. For example, during the rise of Facebook or Angry Birds usage, any electronics product that was ahead of the curve providing those functionalities got free publicity, and something to build the product identity around. Until of course, every one had them

Sometimes certain leadership actions are perceived to have ‘symbolic lever’. Personally, I think today’s world is overly consumed by this myth of leadership. I get that Bill Pullman, as the U.S. President Whitmore, had to make a passionate speech in Independence Day. But did he really have to suit up and get in a jet to fight some aliens himself, even if he had been a fighter pilot pre-politics? Generally, handing CEO or EVP the keys to engine room is amongst the worst crisis management idea ever.

And so on and so forth. The list is endless when you really put your mind into it.

What I am saying is that the impact of leverage on different activities should be a key determining factor how Product Guy spends his/her time.

This understanding of contextual geometrics also separates the rookies from the veterans. Running after every idea or problem until exhaustion works only for the young and dumb who love the thrill of being in the middle of product making action. The more experienced ones remember that it takes a village to move a mountain.

The experienced ones also know that overly transactional behavior makes the world a cold and indifferent place. Sometimes you need to spend the time on what’s right, what’s interesting and what gets the energy up, even if the leverage was non-existent. And, at the end, it may make rational sense too. You never know who’s going to carry the big stick in the next project.

*****

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – review the unknown

 

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Product guy – dream living other people’s lives

shutterstock_95792512 dreaming 600pxDoes Product Guy need to be of the target audience? Can a bald guy sell shampoo? Does the baby food product manager need to wear a bib at breakfast? But on the other hand, should golf companies only hire lousy golfers as product managers to ensure they really know how their hacker customers feel after pulling two identical hooks to the wrong fairway?

Tough ones. No wonder that in the post-Steve Jobs era, there is no clear-cut answer to this eternal question that was perhaps the most asked one, when I collected input for this Product Guy series.

What matters is the passion for the product and the people who use it. That passion can come from within one’s own life, but interestingly, it can equally arise from having the imagination and the curiosity about other people’s lives (note: If this feels too creepy or outer space now, take a breather and read something tangible, like Facebook Graph API documentation)

So when the life is too short to develop a new skill – like a consistent golf swing – Product Guy should focus on trying to understand how it feels for those who have it.

The ultimate stage of dreaming to live other people’s lives is what happened to Jesse Eisenberg. He went to see basketball in London Olympics and was introduced in the TV broadcast as Mark Zuckerberg. And he probably can’t code at all.

For the record, I am so rooting for Ashton Kutcher to be able to pull off the same.

*****

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – understand your levers

 

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Product guy – find your inner hipster

glasses shutterstock_124465828 500pxYin and yang. Fire and ice. Maverick and Iceman. Design and engineering. While it may be entertaining to watch the opposite forces go at it, making great products requires that those forces work together.

When that happens and the cross-functional team is on the high gear, all that friction turning into energy enables the team to go forward at an unbelievable pace. No day is the same. No one settles for the status quo, and everything moves like crazy, unfortunately including features, schedules and the confidence to any commitments given.

The best way for the product guy to fix the situation? Duh. Never let things go so far out of hand.

Not easy, but it can be done. The prevention starts with the product guy understanding the prevailing corporate culture. More specifically, how does the gravity work in the power balance between design (either UI design or industrial design) and engineering (either hardware or software). For example, I worked at Nokia where, in my opinion, the engineering had the upper hand, especially in software, though the gap did start to close as fast as the iPhone ate market share, including some periods of an excessive pendulum swing the other way.

In any given day, the product guy should make the extra effort to be on the side of the weaker, or the misunderstood, party. This isn’t really because rooting for the underdog is a more interesting movie plot, or because product guys somehow are better people, but because of the mission ahead. Greatness often is the result of minds the meeting in the tough debate that stretches the boundaries (and the nerves) of everyone. Had Marty McFly had not the courage to coach George McFly stand up to the bullying of Biff, Michael J.Fox wouldn’t have gone to rule the box office (and, by the way, to help to create a foundation that supports medical research in beating Parkinson’s disease with about 50 MUSD yearly spend)

But how to relate to those trendy design folks? Is it a problem if the product guy can’t fit his kids and the he-ain’t-puppy-no-more -sized dog into a Mini Cooper, but has to opt for a Volkswagen Touran instead? Or that he prefers football shirts over turtlenecks? Or thinks that 5 euros for the coffee that is more milk than coffee, is just modern day highway robbery? The list of self-doubt goes on and on and on…

The solution is that the product guy must find her/his inner hipster.

Now, I don’t mean just suddenly starting to wear intellectual-looking wardrobe or to instagram every piece of lunch the Sodexho office campus cafeteria offers. Nobody wants to be as shallow as Justin Timberlake in Bad Teacher (who, as the Touran-driving product guy wants to note, ultimately was no match to the gym teacher in the quest for Cameron Diaz’s affection)

The point is to be interested in aesthetics, good taste, emotion and beauty. And, like the sometimes forgotten definition of hipster, do that by not taking yourself too seriously, always remembering the difference of actually being intellectual or artistic, and just playing the role. The more open the product guy’s mind, the more he will learn to respect the masters of the artistic universe. And the tens of thousands of hours of practice it takes to become great, often starting early. Mozart delivered his first opera at the age of 12 and Justin Bieber his first youtube hit at 13.

Through the journey of learning to respect the mastery of art, and learning to separate the real from the fake and the wanna-be, the product guy gets the answer to the most mission critical decision around design– who should I trust in the decision of aesthetics and good taste in this particular product.

With an open mind, you may find helpful talent in unexpected places. For example, during my Nokia years, I found many middle-aged, loafer-wearing engineers from places like Jyväskylä (Finland) or Ulm (Germany) to be highly aesthetically competent. And these places don’t have any Starbucks or much choice of a sushi place, so the nurturing of the contemporary art skills shouldn’t be possible. But those places have great outdoors, and, when you really think of it, the nature is one of the most beautiful things ever.

Nature is the answer also if the cross-functional friction turns into an all-out full office warfare. Take your running shoes, put your sportstracker on, and take a run into the woods. And when no one hears, scream your lungs out. It helps.

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – dream living other people’s lives

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Product guy – make one scoreboard

Setting up the product performance scoreboard is one of the most critical tasks of the product guy. But perfecting the granularity level of the information is hard.

Think it is this way. Dow Jones and NASDAQ tell if the stock market is about to fall off any cliff, but using them for stockpicking is risky. ‘42’as the meaning of life has value, but just comedy value. So let’s bake in more parameters, right?

Be careful what you wish for.

During my years at Nokia I saw product performance charts that convinced me that the idea of Balanced Scorecard combined with the infinite capability of Microsoft Excel to add rows and columns can be a lethal combination for human nerve.

Instead of searching for the perfect index or the basket of metrics, the product guy should recognize that the scoreboard needs to be used for at least four different purposes – focus of attention, feedback loop, sense of urgency and rewards – each one of them having different drivers from each other.

Focus of attention

Based on a highly proprietary focus group research, I believe there’s a high correlation between program and project managers and people who love air traffic controller movies.

Air traffic control picture_500px

Those dashboards, those PowerPoints or Excels with a lot of graphs and numbers covering every conceivable dimension of the execution tell them whether the gap between their dream and reality is closing or not. The emotional kicks those people get of staying ‘on top of things’ are hard for the normally wired people to understand, as evidenced by the lousy IMDB scores for the two great flight controller movies – Ground Control (only 5.6) and Pushing Tin (only 5.9).

Now, facing such complexity, the natural reaction is to try to dumb the metrics down, or to craft a super-index. Doing so would be about as useful as removing the altitude parameter from the tool set of the air traffic controllers. Or combining all approaching American Airlines flights under one AA code. Surely, Kiefer Sutherland or John Cusack would have no problem, but any lesser talent would be in trouble.

The highly quantitative approach with a lot of relative numbers can also cause losing sight of the big picture. For example, I worked with feature phones that usually ship in huge volumes. So, for example, in the dashboard of a product family shipping 50 Million units, the yearly product return rate moving from 4% to 5% may look like a blip. But in absolute terms that would mean 500,000 more visits per year to the customer care center. That’s the equivalent of 2,5 days of average total passenger flow through Heathrow Airport.

The dashboards serve best when they are used for understanding where to focus the attention, or what questions to ask. And such data should be kept in the hands of people who know how to interpret them, or at least always supplemented with an expert interpretation.

I saw first hand at Nokia that not much good happens when, for example, sales guys, in need for the product schedule, data tap into the intranet wiki of the product development team, upload some data points and start making their own extrapolations out of the bug curves. Even the highly multitalented Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 didn’t get involved with air traffic controlling, but let Fred Thompson to figure out how to “stack, pack and rack” all the planes safely home.

 Feedback loop

Now, qualitative feedback i.e. written comments – be it via the scoreboard mechanisms or from the friends of the Board members – is another potential source of information overload. Again, it would be a mistake to try to bottleneck and reduce the volume of such valuable input. The more the better.

But in consumer-facing businesses, the amount can be overwhelming, beyond even Kiefer’s or John’s processing capability.

For qualitative feedback, the product guy should focus on building the most efficient “routers” that somehow split the feedback and route it to the right experts. If there’s a comment about “still camera noise levels not being quite right”, the router needs to be intelligent enough to send the feedback to the camera guys based on the word ‘camera’ (instead of sending to the audio guys based on the word ‘noise’).

Surprisingly often, the free form comments contain anecdotal weak signals about a problem (or opportunity) that only shows up on the dashboard when the crisis (or the unplanned success) is in the pants already. Routing data to the right person fast enough can prevent ugly from turning to bad or make good great.

But right routing doesn’t guarantee right action. Which brings us, again, to human behavior.

Sense of urgency

During my Nokia years, the product quality “lessons learnt” studies often revealed that somebody somewhere had detected the problem and the information was even routed to the right place. But nothing happened.

Hindsight is of course dangerous. These days only product managers and the referees of FIFA-governed football games seem not to have the luxury of video replay. A lot of product information comes in all the time and things can be missed.

Through experience people will get better with the information triage. If they have the right attitude. If they don’t….well….there is no easy solution to ignorance. But the product guy can impact behaviors that result in the ignorance blossoming.

First, stop measuring against yourself. “We met the plan. Hence we succeeded” is a train of thought that doesn’t account how often the plan sucks, or the measurement is too massaged from the get-go. Sales guys have a worldwide reputation for being experts in low-balling and sandbagging, but it is only because the product development community is lousy with their PR work. Further, in getting things done, following the plan isn’t the goal. That’s not to say plans wouldn’t be important. They are but they also partially exist as change management tools so that you know that you change for the better and can execute it in a synchronized manner.

Second, find ways to get around the ‘burden of proof’ problem to separate an anomaly from an epidemy.  Do you have to prove that generally rappers don’t make long-lasting box office hit actors? Or do I have to prove that Mark Wahlberg wasn’t a fluke? Or is it inevitable that we end up arguing whether he was much of a rapper so start with? A tough one. But this level of intellectual, quality dialogue about the product feedback is needed.

Rewards

It is impossible to start a discussion about performance and rewards without ending up to the links to Dan Pink’s talks and articles on why Carrots & Sticks don’t work, and how the Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose is the new religion. So let me save the effort and link to some of the most read and viewed material – here, here and here.

Don’t get me wrong. I am definitively not saying “So what?”. I very much believe Mr. Pink is onto something.

I can’t say I have a lot of evidence on my claim. The compensation schemes at Nokia – as often in massive companies – were set very top-down. So there was not a big sandbox to experiment in. But still I saw enough. I became convinced that the more clever & complex (meaning Ph.D. in Definitions required) or the more bold & binary (“If X happens, you get Y (as in yelling) and Z (as in zilch)”) the incentivisation scheme is, the more likely it will fail miserably, stifle creativity and create an attention-diverting headache to manage, stealing focus from what really matter – the product, the consumer and the team.

At the same time, the thinking of not linking performance and rewards at all is a little bit of utopia. Equality is a good starting point because, whether people admit it or not, there’s a socialist streak in every compassionate human being. It just may not reach the level of accepting the pay level of the most un-deserving member of the team. It may just be to the level of protecting that nice guy from being booted, which in realistic terms would be the way to free salary budget for others. And every knowledge worker surely is socialist enough to agree that not all the profit from the great wisdom unleashed should go to the capitalist class.

So a hard problem to solve….

Hence, the scoreboard design must take into account that its data ends up most likely being used for rewards purposes. Hopefully just not through some arbitrary, difficult-to-predict formula, but rather as a data point, or a piece of evidence, people can use to describe what consistutes ‘fair’.

The simple scoreboard that sucks the least

I wrote earlier how I think the combination of three metrics – Net sales, gross margin, Net Promoter Score (NPS) is the closest thing I’ve found to a working scoreboard.

Those metrics are from perfect and can easily be executed wrongly as any other scoreboard (ref: my post about the NPS stimulus problem), but around those metrics I believe it is doable to create a holistic system that works and is cost efficient.

Think NPS as the overall thermometer. If that is in red color, it is proper to declare a higher DEFCON class even if every other single metric is in green. Because something is not quite right. The program manager’s dashboard combined with the written NPS comments from the feedback used in the Dr. House way is then the way to figure out what the root of unhappiness is and how to improve.

In closing, in perpetuity

Unlike in sports, the buzzer of the product scoreboard should never sound full time. It’s a perpetual scoreboard that also becomes better – more accurate, more understandable and less latent – all the time.

That’s because the product guy plays a game that never ends. As the late management thinker, and the only official guru of the product guy series, Peter. F Drucker said, “The purpose of the company is to acquire customers. And keep them”.

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – find your inner hipster

 

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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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