Up late and unable to sleep, I’m doing one of my favorite veg-out activities – watching one of the endless Military Channel documentaries about WWII. I am fascinated by WWII; in hindsight there were so many decisions made by the Axis powers that were strategically and tactically wrong, that I shudder to think what might have been if they hadn’t messed it up.
The Tiger was technically superior by almost every measure – more armor, more firepower, and slightly faster. The Sherman had thinner armor and would almost always lose 1 on 1 battles. The Allies did have a few key advantages. The Sherman was easily repairable. Most important, the Sherman was cheap and could be pumped out in huge numbers. The Allied Generals realized that even though they were losing 4 Sherman’s to every one Tiger, they could take the losses and win the war.
The most puzzling thing about the Tiger was that the Germans were even making it. Their proven technology, the Panzer tank, was less expensive and took half as long to build. In the end, the Germans made less than 1,500 Tigers. The Allies made 50,000 Shermans.
What’s the point? If tanks are products, the Tiger was over engineered. Like many products today, it packed a ton of “neat” features into a bloated package. It was far too expensive, and the German military, always enamored with new technology, expended huge resources to build a few awesome tanks when what they really needed was a ton of average tanks.
The Product Management lesson I
tank take from this is two fold. First, develop to your average user, not your subject matter experts. SME’s will feature pack your product with interesting features of dubious usefulness to the rest of the Market. Worse, they will mutate core features (armor and firepower) to the extreme, and you’ll end up with a scenario where you have important features that should solve user’s problems but are so bloated that they are unrecognizable or hard-to-use (Macros in MS Word, Adobe Download Manager, the HTML blink tag, etc). BTW, Engineering/Development are super-SME’s, so don’t let them define the product – ever!
Second, keep one eye on the strategic place your product will fit in the Market at all times. If the Germans had realized that the war was going to be a numbers game with the U.S.A, they might have shifted their tactics and produced cheaper tanks in more abundance, or sued for peace, or not fought a second front with Russia. You can make a product that solves all of your customers problems, meets all your requirements, and still fails in the market if your strategy is off. For instance, you could make a great operating system that is better than Windows and works in innovative ways, but fails because Windows is embedded everywhere and Linux is free. Make sure you align your product with your strategy and place in the market as you think about requirements.