Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

Source: The Fighter official movie website

Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers

My wife and I watched The Fighter (2010) right after it came out on DVD. It’s an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward, a professional boxer from Lowell, Mass.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for his best interests.  Between his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of stinging defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled, but knowing neither why nor what to do about it.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on in The Fighter, the core issue is a pervasive inability of people, starting with the management team, to work with one another effectively and treat each other properly.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place. There are many particularly bad examples out there, such as “professional” management teams as described in this past blog post.

Starbucks is a recent high-profile example of “post-founder” management that missed the mark badly.  After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued an unfortunate strategy of over-expansion while becoming less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, eliminating previous ‘management by the numbers’ and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

In an organization with a management team that just doesn’t “get” it, innovators are much more likely to be “reined in” than celebrated.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

– Anthony F. Smith, Consultant and author of the book ESPN the Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports.

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that punishes workers for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward or even recognize successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading some of the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer, whose collective response was little more than an indifferent shrug. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion to a dismal story debunks the book’s premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it.  I’m sure  that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few bucks less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on linear “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this malady in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, comes to mind, no doubt to the chagrin of the city of Boston, once the global headquarters of The Gillette Company. Instead of innovating to grow the top line and revitalize the company, Kilts declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead focused squarely on “the numbers” – massive cost-cutting and fixating on shareholders as the only company stakeholders. With a bloated compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold out Gillette to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, was instead gone.

In a book he authored, Kilts proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Kilts successfully… [drum roll?] mandated a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count!

Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! Cue up the sarcastic slow clapping. Paradoxically, Kilts’ book was entitled Doing the Right Thing.

Instead of tinkering over such administrative “problem solving,” I hope your company’s senior executive leaders really are “doing the right thing” – that is, the work they are supposed to do: Increasing the top line by setting the vision, agenda and right environment for creating innovative new products.

I welcome your insights into this topic.

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3 thoughts on “Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

  1. Update: Here is a link to a great blog post by Roger Cauvin, on Debunking Leadership Myths for product managers and product marketers. It concludes with an excellent section on how true leaders who find themselves in a dysfunctional work environment (like the ones described above) will work to change the environment, and failing that, move on: http://bit.ly/2egY55A

  2. Thanks for posting the link to my blog entry and for drawing my attention to yours! I hadn’t realized you’d already addressed many of the same issues.

    Particularly striking to me was your reference to problem-solving versus creativity. Normally, many of us think of problem-solving as a good thing. In fact, Weinberg’s model of leadership emphasizes its effectiveness as solving problems. But your reference brought to mind the fact that problem-solving can often be a narrow exercise in maintaining the status quo (but fixing glitches within it), and thus a disempowering innovation killer.

    1. Thanks, Roger. Problem solving is important, but I am aware of too many situations in which people readily recognize and celebrate “successful problem solving” but have a tin ear to creativity and innovation.

      The overused expression “thinking outside the box” takes on new relevance when you think of “the box” as a well-defined (make that well-confined!) problem for which the expected solution must not question those definitions or confinements: “No, NO, NO, Mr. Henry Ford! We told you to develop a faster horse! 😉

      And to your point about problem solving as a potential form of status quo, a culture that reveres problem solving while holding innovation in lower regard, and perhaps even as a distraction, ends up “paving over the cow paths.”

      I read this recent blog post on problem solving vs. creativity, and how successful innovation is an order of magnitude more valuable than successful problem solving. Suffice to say I found myself nodding my head a lot while reading it.

      Thanks again for your blog post and I look forward to reading more.

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