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Sometimes a little power goes a long way

Moving forward in a risk averse world.

Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting


Have you ever been in this situation? You have a really good product idea and have done some homework. While in the cafeteria the Executive VP stops by (she is layers and layers above you but she loves to talk to Product Managers).  You tell her of your idea and she thinks it is really great.  You tell her you are finding it hard for people to move forward with the idea.  She says she will help. A week later you find out that she appointed a Steering Committee to help.  The more you work with this Committee the less they seem to want to move forward.  They are very nice people but they are part time and not risk takers. They are just too risk averse to move forward. You have done your homework and presented all sorts of data, but they still do not want to move forward.

Why is it that we continue to believe that these committees can act?  Committees can serve many useful purposes.  Products, after all, are built by teams and a good team provides the needed synergy and balance to create a better product than an individual.  Good product teams are essential to good products.  Dedicated product teams are required to make good products. But we are not talking about dedicated teams here, we are talking about part time Steering Committees that have more to lose from the idea moving forward than from letting it die.

To build a good product you need to have political muscle! It is impossible to build a product in a vacuum.  Sheltering the team from the rest of the company not only postpones the problems, but also can create worse problems when they are finally integrated back into the mainstream.  What it requires is for a politically powerful decision maker to truly identify with the product and get completely involved.

Unfortunately, people with political muscle often do not seem to want to focus on the most important thing in their company: their products.  Getting involved in products is extremely time consuming and something that most corporate leaders seem to shy away from. They tell themselves that a committee of un-empowered people will be able to reach a consensus and build a great product.  They seem to think that “the process” will work it all out.  Usually, this is not the case.

Let’s not lie to ourselves about the real dynamics of many committees in today’s companies. We know what they are like, but pretend they are not because we want so desperately for them to work.  People come to meetings only partially prepared because the committee is not really their main job, so they are uninformed. They are also risk averse because they do not want to do anything to hurt their careers (not to mention all the political nonsense that creeps in as well).  The net is that they do not help the product owner but server to slow down the process and frustrate the innovative players.

The committee member’s ability to take risk is proportional to the political capital they have at stake and the knowledge they have of the market and the product.  A product that fails is too much political capital for most people. People who have too much political capital on the line will be too hesitant to take the proper level of risk. They will find themselves unable to move forward because they see the price of being wrong as career limiting. This is true of very senior people as well as junior people.  Their goal is to move forward with something whose risk is so low that there is no political risk.  Part time involvement and ignorance of a market, which is what happens in most committees, create risk too.  How is it that anyone thinks this is going to benefit the product owner?

Unfortunately, all new markets and products require some risk.  The person who can best assume this risk is the most senior person in the company who is free to act independently.  To be able to make good decisions, this person must immerse themselves in the market and the proposed solution.  This senior person will be able to cut through the fear and insecurity of the players involved by taking on that risk for themselves.

A new product will cut through every part of the company and will need those parts of the company to get involved. You might need to strike deals with other companies in order to be successful.  You may need a different channel, or a different pricing model. Don’t create committees, create teams.

Great products come from people who have insight and a willingness and ability to take risk. They need to be committed to the project at hand. What they often lack is the political capital to be allowed to drive forward with their idea.  They also need guidance from experienced people.  Creating and supporting the right team, will provide the broad experience needed for the new product team to succeed.

Empower the team and take the heat for them.  The difficulty comes because they need to do something new and they need protection.   What is required is a leader who can provide support and muscle to get the team to form and run with the idea.  What is needed is a leader who takes on the political risk of the product being right and who immerses themselves in the product to the point where their intuition is aligned with the product direction. A leader who know how to empower and take on the risk to their personal capital.

Yes, build a team to get it done, and join them in the risk of being wrong.