Is Product Management Incompatible with Passion?

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.

Ducati 1098

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?

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  • Reply Steve Johnson March 7, 2008 at 6:02 am

    I’m convinced that the iPod is successful because of design, not because of product management. That said, while developers and designers can tell us what can be built, product management can tell us whether it should. Can we make it a profitable business?

    The MacBook Air is another interesting story. As you say, it is sold out everywhere despite being panned by the critics. What the critics have missed is that THEY are not the target persona. Most people don’t change the battery, connect to a LAN, connect to a data projector, or need 4 USB ports. Most non-business users are completely wireless with a USB hub at our desk to connect to printer, keyboard, and mouse. The Air is great for some but it’s not for everyone. Product management gives guidance to this new persona which is different from the critics and also different from the developers and engineers.

    In the end, product management can tell us whether we should build a product but engineers & developers are the ones who design remarkable products. See more on this rant at

  • Reply Jeff Lash March 8, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Excellent post and great comments by Steve. When you say

    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.

    I think there are two things to keep in mind:

    “Needs” shouldn’t be taken too literally. After food, clothing, and shelter, there’s not much people really “need.” No one “needs” an MP3 player, a motorcycle, a computer, etc. Maybe it’s better to think about “unmet needs” as problems, frustrations, sub-optimal experiences, convoluted processes, unnecessary complexities, and the like.
    “The market” should be thought of in a rather broad fashion. Take the Wii for example — there were several different game consoles aimed at hard-core gamers and none focused on people who currently don’t play games. “The market” needed something like the Wii to fill that gap. Essentially, there was an unmet opportunity that was waiting to be filled. With the iPod as well, there were other MP3 players, though none could allow someone seamlessly and easily manage and transfer their entire music collection like the iPod.

    Finding the “market need” creates a great product — good design on top of that creates a legendary product. A bad product concept that is well-designed is almost always a flop; a good product concept that is badly-designed may be marginally successful, though it will never inspire passion among users and consumers. You need the combination of a good idea that fills a market need — the Wii, the iPod, Good Grips utensils, eBay — and the beautiful design on top of it to bring out the passion.

    My blog: How To Be A Good Product Manager

  • Reply Rob Grady March 10, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Great post and very thought provoking. Product management has a significant role in defining, supporting and sometimes defending a product. For better (or worse sometimes) almost every organization has a visionary or two that can drive passion around the product. I’ve worked with good (and not so good) visionaries. Great products last the test of time and generally beyond the visionary’s endurance. I think you need passion to keep a product successful over the long-term.

    Rob Grady

  • Reply Richard March 11, 2008 at 5:19 am

    Really interesting post! Here’s my take on it

    In certain cases product management can specify that a product should have a certain design. If we identify a market niche that requires beautiful design over complete functionality, for example, then this requirement should come from Product Management.


  • Reply Paul March 11, 2008 at 8:39 am

    This has been a great conversation, and thanks to everyone who has replied. As my thinking has evolved on this topic since writing it, my follow on will be: does passion matter? There are a lot of very profitable products out there that people are not passionate about. I think that we would all love to manage a product that inspires passion because it would be fun, but our job as PM’s isn’t to manage “fun” products…it’s to manage products that are profitable.

  • Reply Product Management, Passion & Design : Practical Product Management March 14, 2008 at 2:34 am

    […] week, Paul Young at the Product Beautiful blog made an excellent post titled “Is Product Management Incompatible with Passion?“. His post is based on a recent Fortune magazine article titled “The Trouble with Steve […]

  • Reply Raj P March 14, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Hi Paul, Great post & very thought-provoking! I found the comments very insightful as well.

    My thoughts on this topic lean towards Richard’s comments above. I wrote a detailed post on our new blog Practical Product Management on this topic.

  • Reply bob corrigan March 27, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Paul, thanks for our chat, you helped me to really organize my thoughts around this very, very challenging post.

  • Reply Jon Gatrell March 31, 2008 at 5:09 am

    usability, design and selecting features are part of PM – right? Good PMs balance the organization, just remember the newton from apple included a thermometer which sat right next to the processor, bad design, bad feature – bad PM.

  • Reply spatially relevant » Blog Archive » March 31st - Relevant Links March 31, 2008 at 6:05 pm

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  • Reply Product Beautiful » Blog Archive » Does Passion Matter? April 2, 2008 at 4:22 pm

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  • Reply Product Management, Passion & Design - Product Management Insights April 22, 2012 at 2:22 am

    […] Last week, Paul Young at the Product Beautiful blog made an excellent post titled “Is Product Management Incompatible with Passion?“. His post is based on a recent Fortune magazine article titled “The Trouble with Steve […]

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