Fortune is running a fascinating story about Steve Jobs that does a great job describing his character flaws and humanity, but also what makes him able to lead Apple to make products that inspire such rapid passion in their customers. The article made me think about Product Management in relation to a “genius designer” like Jobs. Is Product Management incompatible with creating products that inspire passion?
Product Management’s function is to discover market needs and fulfill those needs with products. But people don’t buy on need alone; they also buy on emotion and other soft factors. We can’t dismiss those as “marketing,” because while marketing to create an image is necessary, it is not sufficient to create a passion in customers. Does Product Management have a strong voice at Apple? I don’t know – but I imagine working as a PM next to Jobs would be a very short term assignment. Great designers are really arrogant and don’t really believe that anyone can tap into the pulse of the Market better than they can. This is my favorite quote from the article above:
Often Jobs would suddenly “flip,” taking an idea that he’d mocked (maybe your idea) and embracing it passionately – and as his own – without ever acknowledging that his view had changed. “He has this ability to change his mind and completely forget his old opinion about something,” says a former close colleague who asked not to be named. “It’s weird. He can say, ‘I love white; white is the best.’ And then three months later say, ‘Black is the best; white is not the best.’ He doesn’t live with his mistake. It evaporates.” Jobs would rationalize it all by simply explaining, “We’re doing what’s right today.”
Thinking about other products that inspire passion, a few examples come to mind: Google, Ducati Motorcycles, Porsches, the Mario and Zelda videogame franchises, the Wii, Linux, they all have the common denominator of a really great and uncompromising design. The kind of a design that inspires and others imitate.
The degree to which people in Silicon Valley are afraid of Jobs is unbelievable. He made people feel terrible; he made people cry. But he was almost always right, and even when he was wrong, it was so creative it was still amazing.” Says Palo Alto venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gasse, a former Apple executive who once worked with Jobs: “Democracies don’t make great products. You need a competent tyrant.”
Tyrants don’t work with Product Management. Product Managers who try to be tyrants fail. The PM process of “listen to market, feed requirements to development, output product” is designed to be safe and create exactly what the market needs. But no one needs the products above; they are all emotional buys. How do you quantify emotion? Pragmatic Marketing talks about good PMs finding new, unsolved problems, and I’m sure that would be their answer the the tyrant model.
A great product is dangerous; it breaks from the pack in some distinct way. The genius designer knows that her combination of function and unique design elements is the right mix, but the PM doesn’t have a legal way to specify the design (PM’s don’t do “how”). What makes a Ducati not a Yamaha isn’t the 1098cc’s of engine (well in this case it actually is, but go with me), it’s the look, and the emotional response you get from the outside, and the image you get from sitting on one. You can buy a Yamaha or Suzuki or Kawasaki that is faster and cheaper. Ducati sells out their entire production every year. They’d sell more if they made them. Apple didn’t make the first digital audio player, not even close. Now iPod has a crazy share in that market like 90%. However for all their awesome designs, they would both have failed if they didn’t meet the prerequisite functional specifications for their markets (e.g. “table stakes”).
I say that design and product management are both necessary but not sufficient to create products that inspire passion, but design is more important. Look no further than the MacBook Air – it is widely recognized that it is behind on features at launch, yet it’s sold out everywhere. What are your thoughts?