Wyldstyle or Emmet? Lego lessons for product managers

This holiday season offered a chance for me to see the Lego movie once again. Since I had seen it once already, my mind, not so tied up with following the action and intricate plot, was free to see the deeper perspectives in the film and put it into a product management context.
At the core the movie is about two different ways of building with legos. On the one hand we have Emmet, the super ordinary, construction worker and his friends who always build according to issued plans. On the other hand we have Wyldstyle and the master builders, who build innovative new creations from what ever is available.
The master builders are the renegades, “the cool kids”, those that fight the evil president business. They are extremely creative and anarchistic. The prophecy of Vitruvius states that the chosen one, a master builder, will save the universe.
When Emmet becomes the chosen one, a certain friction arises because he definitely does not have much in way of creativity or innovation potential. But he redeems himself in the end, because he is able to make plans and have the everyone work as a team. He gets the master builders to work together to infiltrate the corporate offices etc.

Working as a team
So, what does this mean? we could generalise lego building to any kind of building and therefore also building software. There are two modes of creation: the heroic genius way of the master builder  or the dull plan based of the team. Just as in the movie, we in the tech industry celebrate the master builders: we cheer the work of the lone geniuses: Steve Wozniack, Linus Thorvalds, Mark Zuckerberg etc.
But just as Walter Isaacson’s latest and highly recommendable book “The Innovators” show, the geniuses NEVER made anything entirely by themselves. It was always as part of some sort of team effort.
Further, every day the wast majority of software out there is built by lifeless ordinaries like Emmet, who are just following plans. Maybe it is time for their vindication and time to take seriously that software development is a team effort. It is never the result of the mythical master builder and there is no prophecy that a chosen one will save the universe. The ability to work is just as important as being a genius.

Worth keeping in mind for the product manager
In practise there are three lessons we could learn from the lego movie
1) Don’t frown upon a plan. Even if it might be changed along the way, a plan is not a bad thing in itself. Agile development for example is often pitted against plan based development. There can be different kinds of plans like roadmaps, specifications or project plans. Following your gut and just jumping from sprint to sprint entirely on inspiration and a spur of the moment will not suffice. It will, metaphorically, only let you charge towards the front door, while a plan may take you all the way towards the top.
2) There is an I in team – it’s hidden right in the “A” hole. A team effort is a team effort, and if you can’t control your ego you are an A hole. It is  important to keep egos in check, because the power of a team will always be superior to that of any individual.  Most people are not geniuses, but that doesn’t mean that their effort is less worth. The entire team may loose motivation and coordination will diminish if egos prevail.
3) Master builders are great and necessary. It is from the individuals who dare think differently that new impulses come. Prototypes, drafts, wild ideas are the domain of the master builder. He or she is not sufficient, though a crucial source for innovation. It is therefore also necessary to allow room for the innovators in a team, but not so much that their ego takes over, but enough that they don’t wither and die.
As a product manager or any type of manager it is therefore important to keep these three lessons in mind: have a plan, keep egos in check and give room for the innovators.

What’s around the product?

Today and for the last 10-15 years we have seen an increased focus on the product and bringing it to market ever faster. Lean, Scrum and agile methodologies champion this view. But maybe it is better to extend this narrow focus on the product to reflect on what is around the product instead.

This is the point that Steve Johnson is trying to make when we talked to him recently. Steve is the founder of Under 10 Consulting, a product management consulting company based on the belief that minimal processes and simple templates will result in world class products. Steve was educated in computer science and marketing. He started in programming, but moved into product management and later joined Pragmatic Marketing, where he worked for 15 years.

Focus on the product!
Product focus is, according to Steve, a good thing, but there should be more to product management than product. What about the promotion, selling, support, and services? These are all part of the “product” from the customer’s perspective. An example is Lean Startup where the focus is on making changes to the MVP in order to make it more and more attractive to the customer until you achieve product market fit. But, just because the response is not as good as we’d hoped, maybe we don’t need to change the product or add another feature. Maybe the problem is the promotion of the product or the positioning. For example, you could make the best action film with car chases and plenty of explosions and still get bad response from customers if you happened to promote it in a children’s film festival. That doesn’t mean the product is a failure; it doesn’t mean you should pivot.

The MVP is often too minimal

“Lean Startup will take you up to version 1.0, but what is interesting comes after. The MVP is the bare minimum product, but you don’t get joy from that. We saw that with the iPhone. What they did with the first version was clearly minimal. They didn’t deliver every possible feature in a minimal fashion; they delivered a few critical features brilliantly. And it set a new expectation for all phones. We all knew that future releases would include photos and video and more apps”.

According to Steve, today’s obsession about product means that not enough thinking goes into developing the whole product, and how it is promoted and sold.

The history of product focus
Since he is a veteran I asked Steve whether it had always been like this, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Back in the eighties there was plenty of awareness that a product had to be marketed and positioned. There was an understanding that product management involved business understanding. In “Crossing the Chasm” Geoffrey Moore saw the product manager’s role as bringing the product from idea to implementation, and then a product marketing manager took it from implementation to market. In the mid-90s, the team behind Scrum created a great framework for producing software where a product owner was supposed to give guidance on what to build. Unfortunately the product owner role turned into something that was carried out by a junior person or work someone would do in addition to their “real” job. This has had the effect that the product manager has been pushed back to the technical side of the job and the business side is not adequately represented in product development:

“If you ask developers what they need in a product owner role they say they want to understand more about the market and users. Marketing want people bright on technology. Sales want someone who is an expert on the domain. Executives expect someone to run the product as if it were a business. Those are very different views on what product management is.”

Therefore focus comes to be on the product in isolation. The effect is that what gets built is not always an optimal product, not a product that will delight customers. Johnson uses the metaphor of a movie:

“ In a movie the developers are the artists. Similarly programming is an art form. The product manager is like the director. Let’s say he walked around the set and the caterer says to him ‘I would like to have some cute bunny rabbits in the film,’ the producer demands car chases, and the actors put drama into it although it is supposed to be a comedy. The director, who may be straight out of college or doing it half time on his way home to dinner with his family, just lets them have their way. That would probably not end up as a film customers would love.”

It is unfortunately the process followed by many companies today, where product owners and the process by which they work are not highly prioritized. Quality often comes as a third or fourth priority, according to Johnson.

Favorite product
As a final question I asked Steve what his favorite product was.

“My Kensington remote control for presenters. I do presentations often and usually the organizer will bring me a remote that is actually a mouse. I often use some gags as the first few slides, so just taking the remote I have already gone through the first three or four slides by accident. Kensington is great because it is specifically designed for presenting. You can go forward to the next slide or back. That’s it. That is just so simple! It is also relatively heavy. I used to have one that was very light but I often dropped it because I forgot I had it in my hand. Another great feature is that they put 2GB of data on it, so I can bring the presentation within the remote. It just does one thing, but it does it really well. I do wish it had a super bright laser pointer though. That is the only complaint I have with this product.”

If you want to read more about Steve’s ideas and views buy his book “From Fragile to Agile: The business of agile product management.” It is out on Amazon in both ebook and paperback. Definitely worth a read.
You can also read more about his company Under 10 Consulting
Steve will be speaking on “Have we LEAN’d too far” at the Business of Software conference in September 2014.
Photo by flickr user James Willamor