The parable of the troublesome product manager

gluten freeOnce there was a product manager named Joan who worked at an Italian foods company called Patitucci’s Delights. Joan loved Italian food, and she loved helping her company sell it and make a profit. She was in charge of prepared dinner products, working alongside two other product managers for pasta and sauces.

Joan had a secret. A customer, enchanted by the company’s delicious lasagna, had sent her a magic platinum coin with a cat on each side. This coin allowed her two chances to go back to any decision she had made for a “do-over.”

One day the owner, Mr. Patitucci, excitedly called his managers together. He had just returned from a talk by a bestselling author. “I have learned the secret of innovation: Darwinian marketing,” he exclaimed. “We must launch as many products as possible and let the market decide. Rapid innovation is the future!”

Joan knew this was bullshit. Launching lots of new products would be costly and create conflict with distribution partners. Her colleagues looked worried, too, but none dared risk taking on Mr. P, so no one spoke.

The company went on to launch 41 new products over the next 12 months. Joan did her part, developing seven new frozen lunch entrees. The cost was staggering, and retailers refused to carry many of the new products. On the day before Christmas, Mr. P laid off half of his staff, including Joan, and the company lay in ruins.

Joan had lost not only her job, but her passion. Reaching into her purse for a tissue, she touched the platinum coin and realized she could save the company. So she chanted the words that were written on the coin:

shroedinger cat coinShrödinger, Shrödinger, I’ve made a mistake.
I’ve made a decision with tears in its wake.
Take me again to that moment of choice.
This time I’ll make sure that they hear my voice.

Whisked back to the conference room one year ago, Joan summoned up her nerve to challenge Mr. P.  “I have always respected your leadership, but I think we really need to think about this,” she told him. “If we pursue this path, the costs of development will bankrupt us. The distributors cannot handle this much change this quickly. Will you please reconsider?”

No one had challenged Mr. P this way before. He responded immediately. “Change is hard on everyone, Joan. You make some very good points. But I have made my decision, and it is up to you, my trusted staff, to maximize our chances of success. I expect you all to contribute.”

Joan’s boss, the head of products, took note of her insubordination, and the lack of effort she put into the project in the next few months. Eventually, he fired her. As she looked for a new job, she watched her colleagues struggle once again to fulfill Mr. P’s vision. And a year after Mr. P had announced the new strategy, the company again faced bankruptcy. So Joan once again used the coin to go back to Mr. P’s meeting and attempt to save the company.

This time, as the first time, she said nothing. But she made meaningful eye contact with her boss. It was clear that he, too, was worried.

Later, at a private meeting with her boss, she explained her concerns. While her boss would not challenge Mr. P directly, he called his product managers together to review the new strategy. While the sauces product manager was dubious, the pasta product manager said that Mr. P’s plan would help him realize a product expansion he’d been planning for a while.

At her boss’ urging, Joan worked on a detailed plan and budget for the new product rollouts. Independently, she reached out to the VPs for marketing, manufacturing, and distribution, each of whom had concerns and were happy to share the necessary details with her. In the end, she assembled two plans, one for the broad rollout, and a second for an expansion of the pasta line only.

At a managers’ meeting one month after Mr. P’s initial announcement, Joan presented her plans. When she rolled out the “full-Darwinian” plan, various managers chimed in to support her points about costs and risks. Mr. P squirmed impatiently.

pastaThen Joan revealed the more limited plan, with the enthusiastic support of the pasta product manager. She emphasized how the plan would allow the company to test the Darwinian idea at lower risk, and to apply what they had learned to the other product lines.

The managers all praised elements of the pasta-only expansion. Mr. P seemed impatient, but the previous discussion of risk had changed his perspective. “We will move forward with this limited plan,” he agreed. “But we must all agree that this is just a step on the way to much broader innovation in the future.”

Over the next 12 months, the customers and distributors responded positively. Based on their experience, Joan and her colleagues developed a model for accelerated new product launches that accounted for costs and risks. The company was moving faster and was more innovative, which made Mr. P happy, so he promoted the head of products to COO, and made Joan the new head of products. Patitucci’s Delights continued to sell lots of great food, the bestselling author continued to sell bullshit, and they all lived happily ever after.

This is not a story about Darwinian marketing or innovation. It’s about what to do when you’re faced with bullshit. Logical analysis, relationships, and allies are the key to succeeding. Emotion, confrontation, and sullen silence are counterproductive.

Have you faced this kind of situation? What did you do?

Photos: Wikimedia Commons, PandaamericaFood, Nutrition & Science

4 responses to “The parable of the troublesome product manager

  1. Mr P is an asshole, and kind of a dimwitted one. It is clearly revealed in all three scenarios. The third scenario is not so much of a “win” but a longer delay until losing. Mr P is still adamant about having his way in spite of overwhelming evidence of financial ruin. If Joan is smart, she will start looking for another job, right now.

    1. If only the work world was free of leaders like Mr. P. Unfortunately in all fields, we all know leaders like this guy, and there are only a few options. You use your wits, your connections and your best logical arguments (and a whole lot of work – as this post demonstrates), or you find a way out of the company. I still think if you have the opportunity to pursue option A, do it. Option B gets old and leaves little room for a good outcome.

  2. “This is not a story about Darwinian marketing or innovation. It’s about what to do when you’re faced with bullshit. Logical analysis, relationships, and allies are the key to succeeding. Emotion, confrontation, and sullen silence are counterproductive.”

    Bullshit is NOT about relationships and allies. Surely, if Joan wants to stay at the company, scenario 3 is the rewarding one, but the only scenario, in which the bullshit was declared as such, is the second one. Tell the truth and face the consequences. That is, what discovering bullshit is about, most people are not able or willing to face the consequences. Relationships and allies may be helpful from a financial point of view, and to stay in job, but they will surely perpetuate the bullshit.

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