Monthly Archives: September 2012

The fallacy of endorsing command and control leadership

I came across this recent HBR blog post “Why Command-and-Control Leadership Is Here to Stay“.  A professor in organizational behavior is advocating command and control leadership backed by no real data.  Her entire assertion is resting on a billboard ad copy at an airport.  Is this how MBA factories are training managers?

Let us set aside that merits of that blog post for a second and inspect this – How often have you as a product manager had direct reports you could autocratically impose and get work done?  How did that go?  How long did they work for you?


The argument that an organization in crisis needs an autocratic leader is a perverse idea propagated by the weak, insecure and incompetent.  Would you suspend the fundamental rights of the citizens of a free nation just because of a ‘situation’?  The glorification of the autocratic leader as some messiah saving the firm from ruin and turning around its fortunes is not backed by a single example.  People cite Steve Jobs at Apple as an example.  That is a complex case.  First, your average executive is no Steve Jobs.  Second, even if your executive is some kind of Steve Jobs, it is highly unlikely he is going to be blessed with or is going to  surround himself with talent like Jobs did.  So let’s leave the obvious exception aside.


Turning to real examples backed by data, in his well researched work Jim Collins cites humility as the recurring Level 5 Leadership attribute in the 11 Good to Great firms that were able to turn around or transform their businesses.  If there is one thing we are learning in the information age about organizational behavior in free labor markets it is this – people organize themselves out of their own free will,  around a cause, a common purpose or objective, and produce goods and services that best serve their collective interests while maximizing on their individual capacities.


If Jim Collins work is about great leadership, modern software organizations are demonstrating new ideas in great organizational design and behavior.  Marc Andreessen famously observed  Why software is eating the world.  There’s a larger truth in that.  Software firms are also teaching organizational  design and behavior to firms entrenched in industrial economics based structure.  Firms like Github and 37 signals are setting the tone for how a collaborative flat meritocracy can be a self governing, profitable firm.  Last week I attended a Lean Software Austin Meet Up for the topic - Self-Determination in Software Development Organizations.  The discussion in the meeting was instructive.  The organizations being discussed were successful because they empowered their rank and file employees to make important decisions that “management” would be normally expected to make.  In fact it was part of their founding ethos to empower all employees.  I’ve been reading Dave Gray’s new book The Connected Company.  He talks about how the best performing firms are hierarchy busting, employee empowering firms and based on a firm design he calls “the podular organization“.


The good news is all of this is nothing new for product managers.  Product managers are already used to working in cross functional organizations with no authority but advocacy.  So skip autocracy and hero worship.  Rally around a purpose and chances are good that a great product will be built.  If you want to build a successful business or transform you business now, hire people with T shaped skills, hire collaborators and definitely hire for culture.  Insecure executives hiding under autocratic decision making are not the choice for leading your organizations.

- Prabhakar Gopalan (@PGopalan)

photo credit: user MHJ

Mind the Product Conference – London – This Friday

If there’s one place I’d love to be this Friday (aside from home with my family!), it would be in London attending the Mind the Product Conference.

Click the link above or that banner to the right.

While I’ve attended a number of ProductCamps (BTW ProductCamp NY is this Saturday)  there are very few larger conferences that focus on Product Development and Innovation.

The speakers in London look great, and it looks like there will be a great turnout.

I’ll follow the conference on Twitter — hopefully attendees tweet extensively (hint hint). And perhaps next year, I’ll be able to attend.

If you are going to be in London on Friday and do attend, send us an update via our Contact page.



Product Demos are like First Dates – Here’s Why

How often do you see a product demo and think, “OK, this is 20 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

The fact is, most product demos, particularly those for “technology products” are severely lacking. People, usually a sales consultant, spend far too much time explaining all the wonderful features of their product in excruciating detail with little regard to customer needs– “show up and throw up” is the phrase that comes to mind.

In most cases, you can’t blame the person giving the demo. They’re just doing the job with the tools and training they’ve been provided. So where should we point the finger?

I’ll be honest; the finger should point back at Product Management and Product Marketing, who in all likelihood, have not provided the proper foundation to the people who are giving demos. And so, without the needed information, what else can the sales consultant do, but talk about what they know — i.e. the product.

What’s the point of demos anyway?

Let’s analyze this a little. Product demos are given very early in the sales cycle, when the prospect doesn’t know much about the product and the vendor knows little about the customer’s true intent and needs. They each know a little about each other but there are still a lot of unanswered questions and trust needs to be built before things will go much further.

What does this sound like to you? To me, it sounds like a first date!!

Seriously, think about it.

Obviously one side (the vendor) is looking for a commitment much more aggressively than the other (the buyer).

You’ve got two parties, each with their own objectives, meeting for an initial “get to know you” session before deciding if there is value in moving forward to the next step. . . . . . . a second date!

So, with that in mind, here’s what Product Managers and Marketers should be thinking about when they equip their Sales teams to demo their product.

Understand what the other side is interested in – If there’s anything that will kill a demo (or a date), it’s talking at the other person, vs. talking to them. And the only way you can talk to them is to know what they are interested in, or what their goals are. This is probably the single biggest problem with most demos. The demonstrators have NO IDEA why the prospect needs the product.  Equip your sales teams with clear problem statements your product addresses OR enable them to identify them with the customer.

Listen more than you talk – This is tough, especially when you’re the one who’s supposed to be doing the talking. Arm your sales consultants with key questions to ask as they engage with the prospect. It should NOT be a “demo script” that they blindly follow. This requires consultants who can manage a good conversation and ask insightful questions at the right time. A few well thought through questions can make a huge difference and allow prospects to open up.

Deliver with Confidence – I’ve seen demos where the person giving the demo is nervous or seems to be hesitant about their product. They may know where all the warts and blemishes are in the product, but there’s no reason to let the prospect know (or suspect) that that product is anything but amazing. Ensure that anyone who is giving a demo is confident in what they are talking about. Humming and hawing or sentences spoken in a monotone or robotic manner scream “No Confidence” to the audience.

Watch out for red flags -Sometimes things don’t go as planned. People start looking distracted, pick up their Blackberry, check their email, or simply shut down. You can see their impatience. Learn to read these signals and if you see them, don’t be afraid to stop and ask questions to see what the problems are. What’s worse than a boring demo? A demonstrator that doesn’t realize he’s giving a boring demo!

Don’t reveal too much - Keep the ultimate objective in mind. And it’s not to wow them with the awesome technology you have at your fingertips! It’s to show them you understand their needs and your product will address those needs and make their jobs better. You want them to leave the demo wanting more. Yes, they should leave the meeting excited about your product, seeing value in it, and WANTING to know more about it.

Ask for that follow up meeting - Don’t forget the goal of the demo: to get that follow up meeting. So make sure you ask for it and get their input on what they want. and let them help plan the second date!


Tweet this: Product Demos are like First Dates – Here’s Why #prodmgmt #sales


Roadmap Planning – Bottom Up View

By Rivi Aspler

A product roadmap can be easily compared to an ambitious architectural plan. Very much like a new type of building, the product roadmap should draw a vision that is as useful as innovative. And very much like an architectural plan, achieving the plan is much more challenging than setting the goal.

Challenges are countless… many people are involved, working towards this (hopefully on target and well-defined) goal. Budget is always an issue. Timeline is always an issue and if I had to make a bet, I would put my money on having something go wrong, sometime, somewhere and with someone….


For this post, my assumption is that you already have a structured roadmap plan and you now have to get your hands dirty and start maintaining this intended product strategy.

Bottom up monitoring of the Sprint-Over-Sprint actual investment in each product (that is if you are working with Agile) is one of the must-do actions in order to achieve your ambitious multi-product roadmap plan.


The table below is an example showing the actual investment in each product, compared to the planned investment.

The yellow cells highlight problematic sprints, in which the actual investment is significantly lower than the planned investment, possibly jeopardizing the intended product strategy.

Reasons could be various and are often prosaic. People get sick, take a vacation, quit (or get fired). Alternatively, you may have started the year with a plan to recruit 4 people and you are unable to find them. Another scenario could be that you have found these newcomers but they are not productive yet (2-3 sprints to train a new employee). Many reasons could explain a lower productivity level and that roadmap plan that has to be realized.

No matter the reason, don’t be surprised when R&D supplies less content if it has less coders than required or a lower quality product if it has less QA people sprint-over-sprint.

Want your actual product strategy to be as close as possible to your intended product strategy?! Move people around. This is what Agile is all about. Flexibility. Make sure that your more important products get more R&D power sprint-over-sprint.

Should you wish to use the excel that is explained in both roadmap planning posts, attached please find it (Roadmap_Plan).


Tweet this: Roadmap Planning – Bottom-Up View #prodmgmt #agile #roadmap

Weekend inspiration – a great artist can come from anywhere

I just watched the movie Ratatouille on TV.  Yes, I know.  I am 5 years behind the release date.

It ended with a  reading from one of the characters in the movie – Anton Ego, a food critic.  I am posting the text of it from a blog post that I found Googling:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

The writing is simple and profound.  Anyone can cook…a great artist can come from anywhere.

- Prabhakar Gopalan (follow tweets @PGopalan)


ADMIN: And we’re up and running again….

Just a quick update for those of you who may have visited the site and seen a “Woopsnotice on pages and posts. That is WordPress’ version of “Error 404 – Page not Found“.

What Happened
Sometime yesterday, still trying to identify exactly when, a database corruption occurred that effectively removed all posts, pages and comments from the site. The site itself was up and running and all other functionality was fine, but the content unfortunately had disappeared.

What We Did
We’ve restored all the content and it looks like everything is back to normal.Please let us know if anything seems out of whack or you see anything else that looks out of place.

And let me extend our apologies for the disruption in service.


A Product Management Flow Chart

By Rivi Aspler

Getting a new product manager on board, I realized recently that there are so many tasks to handle that one can easily get lost.

On one hand, this is exactly what I like about this profession; the requirement to always remember the high level product strategy while having to, on a daily basis, stay on top of each and every one of multiple and versatile tasks. On the other hand, that’s as hard as being able to draw an entire wood as if you were flying 10,000 feet above sea level while still intimately knowing and caring for each and every tree in that tangled forest.

The below flowchart is something that I use very often when training new product managers into their role. One can easily fine tune the tasks (represented by the blue rectangles) or the timeline (yellow rectangles) but the overall flow, I think is generic enough.

(click to enlarge)

Looking at the above chart, one can trace the following guidelines:

  • The market related tasks (competition analysis, conversations with customers and prospects and market trends analysis) drive the product roadmap.
  • The product manager translates the MRD into a product backlog (the big stones).
  • The product backlog is then broken down into a few Release backlogs (we maintain 4 release backlogs per year) which in their turn are broken down into Sprint Backlogs (N sprints/year).
  • It’s a never-ending story …. As feedback comes in from the field and R&D brings up new constraints every day, the product manager should update the release and the sprint backlogs on an ongoing basis.


Tweet this: A Product Management Flow Chart – #prodmgmt #agile

Computers aren’t always the answer

by Steve  Johnson

I was in Toronto on Saturday (August  4) for the Toronto Product Camp and noticed this when I checked out:

What a delightfully low-tech solution. Happy? Or not? Drop your room key to tell us.

For the hotel, just count the number of keys at the end of the day to know how you’re doing. How many Promoters? How many Neutral or Detractors? I don’t think they need to do a follow up survey or phone call. (But of course, they could, since my room number is probably coded on the key, so it’s not as anonymous as many might think.)

We encourage you to do surveys for the quantitative and interviews for the qualitative. But don’t miss low-tech opportunities to get a quick idea of how you’re doing.


Tweet this: Computers aren’t always the answer #prodmgmt by @sjohnson717

Reposted with permission. Originally posted on Primary Intel blog.

Thoughts on Gestalt Product Strategy

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak on the topic of Gestalt Product Strategy at the Global Product Management Blog Talk Radio channel.  Cindy Solomon and Lydia Sugarman of Venntive were the kind hosts of the program.  Here are a few thoughts and considerations around the topic.


What does Gestalt mean?

photo credit:

Gestalt is a German word that means a configuration or pattern that cannot be derived from the sum of its parts, but can only be represented by its unified whole.  There’s a whole theory of neuroscience around Gestalt Therapy.  This post is not about that.  This post is about taking the Gestalt meaning and applying it to strategy and products.

I came across the term Gestalt when I learned about drawing using the perceptual part of the brain.  Some years ago after an inspired reading of Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, I took a five day drawing class in New York city with Brian Bomeisler, son of the famous drawing instructor Betty Edwards.  As Brian unraveled how to shut off the thinking brain and switch to the perceptual brain, and then look at the Gestalt of the picture we were drawing, I couldn’t stop myself from relating this idea to the products we conceive and develop.  What if we approached products as a whole in stead of feature by feature?  What if we drew the outline and then built everything in it based on the discipline with which the outline was drawn – there are things that will go in and there are things that won’t make it.  Simple in thought, difficult in practice as we all know.  In drawing it is easy – don’t draw just the nose or the eye  all the way through, but look at the whole picture and develop it simultaneously, line by line, shade by shade and the picture will emerge.


Mintzberg’s work

Googling Gestalt and strategy led me to Mintzberg’s Patterns of Strategy Formation paper.  And why was I not surprised.  Mintzberg, if you aren’t familiar with his work, is in my humble opinion,  the greatest teacher and researcher on the subject of strategy.   For those of you who have participated in my ProductCamp strategy discussions, you  may recognize I’ve quoted Mintzberg’s works liberally and even handed out free copies of his works to lucky attendees that didn’t go to an MBA program and drown themselves in Porter’s 5 Forces.

But back to Gestalt.  How do you know the Gestaltness of your Product or your firm?  What does it stand for?  Mintzberg says it’s two things that make up Gestalt strategy 1) the uniqueness and 2) the integration that results/or is behind the uniqueness.  Where do these come from?  Do they arise at the beginning of the product conception and development? Can they arise after a product is already launched?  Is Gestalt Strategy a deliberate strategy or is that a result of emergent strategy?  Who is responsible for the Gestaltness?  Is it the product owner?  Is it the founder of the firm? the marketer?  Can it change with time? Can organizations be Gestalt at one period of time, lose their way and then come back to a totally different ‘whole’ than before/  What kind of organizations thrive in Gestalt strategy?  What kind of leaders are capable of leading such organizations?  These are all things to ponder.

As I think through these questions, following is what I come up with.  1) Market leaders typically have a Gestalt strategy – whether it is deliberate or emergent.  But it is not exclusive to them.  Even long tail firms can have Gestalt strategy.  Gestalt is about uniqueness, about the whole that is a combination of integrated elements others/competitors cannot trivially assemble or copy.  2) Gestalt strategy is very much a founder or transformational leader led effort – you either need a clean slate to paint the whole picture or you need to start from scratch to build something new with a vision.  It is hard to take someone else’s work and try to draw a whole around or within it.


A simple Gestalt example

What are some good examples of Gestalt strategy?  The simplest I can think of is small and medium businesses, especially in the food industry.  For example there’s an independently owned Thai restaurant that is two blocks away from where I live.  Walking into the restaurant, there is a certain vibe and feel to it.  Every single element inside is curated to reflect the Thai spirit and culture in them – the furniture, the decoration, the wall posters, the shelves in the connected grocery store.  Arguably the owners of the restaurant can make more money if they also started selling things that aren’t part of their Gestalt.  But, the owners made a conscious decision to only sell those that fit the ethnic Thai vibe the restaurant has.  So you won’t see generic Asian grocery in the store shelf.  It’s either Thai Jasmine rice or no rice.  Just as the product, the customer service at this is restaurant has a friendly neighborhood vibe.  The owner remembers the names of the people (including me and my daughter) that frequent her restaurant.  So the product, the layout, the customer service – all of it together make up the strategy, the Gestalt.  If I were to simply single out, for example, the Thai food is their differentiation it would be unfair and incorrect.  There are other factors beyond the food, that make up the full picture.  Disaggregating the value chain and optimizing each component of the value chain is good for analysis but isn’t how the Gestalt works because the whole is greater than the sum of individual parts.


Gestalt and leadership

But Gestalt also raises a huge leadership competency issue.  Who is fit to lead the organization when envisioning and implementing a Gestalt strategy?  Is it a generic executive who can operationalize things.  It is someone who knows the subject deeply, is passionate about it.  Is that someone that is an entrepreneur? Is that a serial entrepreneur?  Is that a transformational leader?  Someone that bridge many elements of the strategy into one coherent vision?

Referring back to the Thai restaurant, it so happens the couple that own is half Thai and half American.  They teach Thai cooking classes.  They are passionate and knowledgeable about the subject.  They are also the founders, the entrepreneurs.  Imagine if they sold their restaurant to some operator who is excellent at managing teams,  but has no real understanding of Thai food or what makes the restaurant truly stand out in the neighborhood for its uniqueness.  Would the Gestalt of the restaurant still stand?  Doubtful.    The former had authenticity of founding a business with a vision while the latter’s authenticity is suspect.

What are the problems we can see with Gestalt strategy?  Founders, transformational leaders like everyone else can have their blind spots.  The founders of RIM had a unique vision about their product.  For years that product had, what seemed like a durable advantage.  But they didn’t have the strategic agility.   Perhaps the problems at RIM were far more than what the founders could handle, and/or their competition was simply too good and/or their cognitive bias was working against their new product strategy.   In any case, Gestalt strategy needs to be agile and fluid even as it integrates every element to be unique.

The key for product strategists is to recognize when and how their Gestalt vision can work.

- Prabhakar Gopalan(follow tweets at @PGopalan)