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.