Why the Question “Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller?” is a False Choice

I recently read an article posing the well-known sales question, Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller? by George Deeb. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to be selling a “painkiller” technology product that relieves acutely-felt, pervasive business problems, rather than a “vitamin” product that offers some lesser, more specialized value.

I agree with Deeb that it’s much harder to build a large, scalable business around vitamin products than painkiller products, but a product-as-painkiller is not the ultimate or best product offering either.

In other words, the question “Is your product a vitamin or a painkiller?” is a false choice – and businesses that rely on painkiller product revenue are at more risk than they might realize.

The issues of trying to sell a vitamin product are described quite well in Deeb’s article. But painkiller products have their own issues. For example, one of the most frequent and frustrating “competitors” to a painkiller product sale is “none of the above”. Much to many a sales manager’s chagrin, prospects often decide that while the business pain is real, alleviating it simply isn’t worth the effort, like Norm in this classic scene from Cheers:

Meanwhile, new enabling technologies march on: painkiller products that once upon a time required a huge capex for on-premise enterprise software, servers and services (CRM, marketing automation, legacy BI) are now offered inexpensively on a SaaS basis (SFDC, Marketo, GoodData). More and more painkiller products are becoming available at lower “vitamin-level” cost and simplicity!

Another issue with painkiller products is they implicitly assume a business status quo. Consider Polaroid in the mid 90’s. Like so many other large companies, Polaroid jumped in with both feet into ERP, the ultimate painkiller technology of its time. Polaroid even won major awards for its SAP implementation. While Polaroid’s ERP no doubt lightened many operational pains by optimizing inventory, purchasing, quality control and such, meanwhile the company was failing miserably with new products and all but ignoring the deterioration of its instant photography market to digital cameras.

I recall reading a Polaroid executive praising the company’s new operational efficiency of its instant photography “core business.” Not long after, in 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy, with most of that “core business” long gone.

Clearly, while reducing business “pain” is important, such efforts are no substitute for the ultimate purpose of a business, as memorably described by Peter Drucker:

There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer… Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.

And for decades, business technology has focused on operational efficiencies instead of serving as new platforms for innovation. Again, quoting Peter Drucker:

For top management, information technology has been a producer of data [for operational tasks]… Business success is based on something totally different: the creation of value and wealth.

This requires risk-taking decisions… on business strategy, on abandoning the old and innovating the new… the balance between the short term and the long term… These decisions are the true top management tasks.

The technology products that will reap the greatest financial rewards will be those that address those “true top management tasks”: innovation that creates new business value and wealth; such as

  • Advanced analytic platforms that reveal all-new insights into markets, products, customers and competitors
  • Gamefication platforms that motivate employees, customers and partners to want to take actions that mutually benefit the organization, themselves and other stakeholders
  • Customer/prospect engagement technologies that personalize and optimize every experience with your organization, whether online or in-person, across all channels (particularly mobile)

Artwork by: BTimony (click to see original)These and other new technologies designed to enable innovation make up a third category of products that go far beyond painkiller or vitamin products.

So what should we call this third product category? Maybe… “steroids”? Nah, don’t think so…

Perhaps “miracle drug”? No…

What about… “Popeye’s Spinach”?!

What do you think?

Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter” at Work?

the-fighter-movie-poster

The Fighter (2010) is an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg), a professional boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for him. Stymied by his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) badly mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of embarrassing 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.

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 with his family members in The Fighter, too often executives and senior managers fail to lead effectively and treat workers with respect and civility.

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.

Starbucks is one example of post-founder management that missed the mark badly. After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued a nearly ruinous ‘management by the numbers’ strategy along with massive over-expansion that made the company less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

There are many far worse examples out there, from so-called “professional” turnaround management teams to the likes of James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, who simply abdicated his responsibility to cultivate innovation to grow the top line and revitalize the company. Instead, Kilts simply declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead fixated on shareholders as the only company stakeholders, overseeing massive layoffs and cost-cutting. With a compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold Gillette in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, became just another division of Proctor & Gamble.

In an organization with a management team that has merely inherited the fruits of innovation from previous leaders, innovation becomes devalued and “leaders” take short-sighted actions, often based on their “knowledge” of the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

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

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 burns out workers and punishes them 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 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. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded or recognized 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 debunks the book’s own 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 nickels 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 such “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 issue 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.

Once again Mr. James Kilts comes to mind. After selling off Gillette, he authored a book, paradoxically entitled Doing What Mattersin which he proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Successfully mandating 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?! This is not leadership; it’s an example of executive tinkering over administrative “problem solving.”

Source: New York Times (click for source page)

In The Fighter, Micky Ward’s fortunes begin to change when he begins to surround himself with professionals who set the right environment and agenda to start setting him up for success.

Similarly, in the world of work, I hope your company’s leaders and managers are also setting the right environment, agenda and vision to innovate – thereby setting up the company, your co-workers, and you for success.

What Flavor is Your Cupcake?

The Cake Model for Product Planning is a clever and simple product management methodology by Brandon Schauer.

The cake model helps launch desirable products as quickly as possible. Doing so helps customers gain positive, successful product experiences as quickly as possible as well.

The cake model urges product managers not to try making a big huge honking cake of a product. That requires baking a very a big cake (on its own, rather plain and dry), then adding some filling, and then some frosting. Hopefully your target markets are willing and able to wait for all that, and the finally-completed cake is the flavor, texture, etc. they were expecting.

Instead, product managers should first spec out a cupcake of a product that be made relatively quickly, with a small amount of cake complimented with enough filling and frosting to make people want it  – and get value from using it – right away, as is.

Users achieve success and a sense of competency with the product now, and eagerly look forward to enhancements. For more on the importance of getting your users past the newbie threshold with your product to passionate user, check out this classic post – one of my favorites from Karhy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users blog (archive).

One cupcake product model example that comes to mind is the online to-do app TeuxDeux. Instead of trying to bake the entire cake of “everything” that belongs in a to-do app, TeuxDeux offered up a quick cupcake: a dead-simple online to-do application for people who might find the very wide and deep features of more comprehensive to-do apps like Remember the Milk a bit intimidating. Users raved about TeuxDeux’s highly intuitive “cupcake,” and have since provided tens of thousands of enhancement suggestions, culminating in new online features as well as an iPhone version.

Meanwhile, product marketing managers contribute to the success of the cake model through two primary roles:

  • Convince your target market segments that your cupcake not only tastes good, but also tastes far better than competitors’ big, plain, dry cake (or their attempts at cupcakes).
  • Have, or quickly gain, vertical (industry/field) and/or functional subject matter expertise (SME) to help render your cupcakes particularly flavorful to those market segments.

I think the Cake Model for product management, combined with the above-noted product marketing role, also aligns well with the market segment-driven product strategy of Proficientz, formerly ZigZag Marketing, as recently presented by John Mansour, Managing Partner at Proficientz, to members of the Boston Product Management Association.

Under such a market-driven strategy, product managers are across-the-board experts on the product, setting product priorities based on key market segment growth potential, and product marketers are influential in identifying those key market segments, leveraging SME, and developing effective messaging and marketing strategy for each segment.  (A market-driven strategy becomes even more vital when you have a number of products, now managed as a portfolio, in which each product plays a defined role as part of a complete solution for the key market segments).

In turn, such a market-driven (not product-driven) strategy lends itself to the quicker creation of cupcake products, as well as subsequent iterations, building off the initial cupcake to create a small layer cake, then a bigger sheet cake, and perhaps someday a gigantic wedding cake!

The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

With thanks to a tweet by Donald Farmer, I recently came across an impressive graphic representation of the increasing degrees of human imagination.

Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination was designed by John Maeda based on his conversation with Patti Brennan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Similar in design to Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs, the Hierarchy of Imagination is represented as a pyramid progressing from the base of reactionary behavior with little or no imagination (Reflex), proceeding upward to Problem Solving, then Creativity, and finally the pinnacle of “completely unrestrained” Imagination.  It is a very thought-provoking, very useful model.

I had a few thoughts on Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination and its application to the workplace and product marketing/management in particular:

  • The hierarchy should not be interpreted as disparaging jobs in which little creativity or problem solving is expected. What sets a worker in such a job apart from others is the level of wisdom they bring to their job (Read more here). That said, a person in the Reflex category had better not find himself in a Peter Principle job situation and be expected to proactively solve problems or provide creative leadership.
  • Many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination. A product manager who spends his time gathering customer enhancement requests and prioritizing bug fixes (Problem Solving) will likely find himself in trouble with his VP who expects him to creatively identify new, ground-breaking features for the next version of the product. Conversely, a “left brain” business owner who prides herself as a Problem Solver is more likely to fail to appreciate the creative work of her marketing manager. She might even be reluctant to recognize new business leads are being generated by creative, engaging marketing programs, choosing to be preoccupied instead with supposed “flaws” as to “how” those marketing programs were executed.
  • Problem Solvers should beware of creativity blind spots. With the thought in mind, I read an article linked on John Maeda’s blog on the challenges creative people might face when pursuing leadership roles. I’m willing to wager that many of those surveyed demonstrating ambivalence towards creative people tend to fit into the imagination hierarchy as Problem Solvers themselves, strongly focused on successful project administration but also generally unaware of the creative value and ultimate business impact of a project’s deliverables. To paraphrase a passage I recall from a Tom Peters book, ‘the project was ahead of schedule and under budget… but no one cared about the final product!’ Such Problem Solvers risk losing their creatives, and with them, their capacity to innovate, gain the attention of new prospects and keep existing customers.
  • In fairness to Problem Solvers, creativity needs to be directed carefully. Product manager turned CEO Barbara Tallent warns product managers to avoid working on “just the cool stuff” instead of what customers have already said they need and will pay for. Read more here.
  • The further you go up the imagination hierarchy, the more vital your skills of persuasion will be. In order for a creative person or someone with “completely unconstrained” Imagination to achieve his vision, he will need to effectively brief others in the organization on the merits of that vision. And if their boss is that prideful Problem Solver, they must effectively “manage up” and earn the boss’ buy-in, enthusiasm and support. Read more here.
  • You can’t “teach” creativity, but you can help cultivate it. On this issue, I really like Patti Brennan’s comment: “teaching creativity doesn’t work but expanding their imaginations might work better.” In her work in patient healthcare, Patti Brennan believes “that in order to get patients to take control of their health, they need to imagine what it looks like to be more healthy.” Well said! The ability to visualize something better than what you are already doing is vital for creativity. Similarly, creativity requires a capacity to empathize with others, whether we are talking about the health problems of patients or the challenges and frustrations of our customers. Good product management and product marketing professionals can translate their empathy towards what customers are going through into well-defined products and clear, relevant, engaging messaging and content.

I found Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination very insightful and I look forward to reading more from John Maeda’s Creative Leadership blog.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Product Managers and Product Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”? [Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers]

Today’s “New Rules” Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

Product Managers & Marketers Should be “Intelligently Disobedient”

To help avoid a wide variety of business risks and disruptions, organizations should encourage employees to be “intelligently disobedient.”

This important trait is from Bruna Martinuzzi, author of some great business books including one of my favorites, The Leader as a Mensch. She explains:

I once worked for a technology company that encouraged employees to practice what they called “intelligent disobedience.”

The concept originates from seeing-eye dogs: while dogs must learn to obey the commands of a blind person, they must also know when they need to disobey commands that can put the owner in harm’s way, such as when a car is approaching.

Intelligent disobedience is not about setting out to be disagreeable or arbitrarily disobeying rules for its own sake. Rather, it is about using your judgment to decide when, for example, an established rule actually hinders your organization, rather than helps it.

That blind conformity is more likely to be prevalent in organizations practicing one-way, “top-down” business communication.

Bruna Martinuzzi offers a number of ideas to encourage cultivating an environment of intelligent disobedience, directly applicable to effective product marketers and product managers, including …

Decentralize some of the decision-making in your unit. If you are used to making all the decisions, allow those closest to the customer the flexibility to make appropriate decisions on the spot, including the authority to bend the rules when necessary.

Don’t surround yourself with yes-men. Barry Rand of Xerox, quoted in Colin Powell’s A Leadership Primer: “…if you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant.”

Help your people distinguish between fact and conjecture. If you have one data point, you don’t have data; you have an anecdote. Conjecture can be influenced by anecdotes, assumptions and other mental scripts which don’t have a bearing on reality… By encouraging people to ask questions, analyze assumptions and conjectures that may or may not be valid.

Be aware of mind traps that lead to blind conformity. Mind traps act as mental straight-jackets, preventing you from thinking creatively and rationally. These include, for example, the “herd instinct” – relying on the fact that “everybody else is doing it.”

There is a huge difference between rigorous, “intelligently disobedient” debates and not-so-intelligent arguments that run the risk of stifling meaningful discussion all together.

The Anti- Product Management/Product Marketing Class

I don’t know what recently reminded me of the classic 80’s comedy film Back to School, starring the one and only Rodney Dangerfield, but a certain scene from that movie is a great (and funny) example of an anti-product management, anti-product marketing class.

Self-made millionaire Thornton Melon (played by Dangerfield) goes back to college to repair his relationship with his son, a student at the school. One of Thronton Melon’s first classes is led by the stereotypically stuffy, ivory-tower business professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead).

As Dr. Barbay informs the class they will create a new manufacturing company, Melon asks, “What’s the product?” After a few failed attempts to dismiss the question (Barbay: “Let’s just say they’re ‘widgets’!” Melon: “What’s a widget?!”), an exasperated Dr. Barbay finally insists the specific product they will make “doesn’t matter!”  That’s absolute heresy for any self-respecting product marketer or product manager!  Of course, the entire scene is well worth watching.

Update: On the contrary, Dr. Barbay: the idea, the answer to “What’s the product?” is, of course, everything to the company’s success.

Be a Dogged (Not Dog!) Product Marketer/Product Manager

Taking advantage of the excuse to post a picture of my dog.

Taking advantage of the excuse to post a picture of our dog Pepper 

Barbara Tallent is a former product manager turned CEO, who today is co-founder of LiveBinders, a social bookmarking application. I first connected with Barbara Tallent some years back after reading her informative article From Product Manager to CEO.

Barbara led a thought-provoking live presentation that asked the question, Why are there so few Great Product Managers?

Barbara Tallent interviewed six CEOs on a confidential basis to get their perspective on why there are so few great product managers. Much to her chagrin as a former product marketing executive, these CEOs were fairly jaded about the product marketing function: “I’ve never really worked with a great product manager,” one CEO told Barbara (and that CEO had worked with Barbara earlier in his career!). Another drolly responded, “Why aren’t there any great product managers?”

Another product manager turned CEO readily agreed that product marketing is “a really tough job,” for a number of reasons:

  • The CEO, VP Development, VP Sales and sales team, etc. all see small portions of the overall product marketing job and assume what they see is all the product marketer does.
  • Very few metrics – not all product marketers are judged based on sales success
  • Risk of being the “fall guy” – product marketers and managers might be blamed if some issues with the product and/or sales levels come up; going back to the familiar refrain that the PM/PMM has all the responsibility and none of the line authority.

OK, now here’s the good news: There is ample reward to go with the above risk. CEOs also viewed product marketing and management as a key source of future company leadership.

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The Product Manager as CEO-Heir Apparent

Ursula-Burns-XeroxIn May 2009, Xerox President Ursula Burns succeeded the retiring Anne Mulcahy as CEO. The fact that Ursula Burns then became the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company is vitally important in and of itself. And yet, additionally, while reading Ursula Burns’ company biography, I was intrigued by whether Ms. Burns’ formative years with Xerox included significant work within product management. This may well have been the case.

Ursula Burns’ Xerox executive bio notes that “Burns joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and later assumed roles in product development and planning. From 1992 through 2000, Burns led several business teams including the office color and fax business and office network printing business.” It would be interesting to know whether the business teams Ms. Burns led was within product management, and whether her work prior to 1992 included roles within product management (this might depend on how Xerox defines “product development and planning.”) I dropped a quick email to the Xerox PR department inquiring about any specific product management roles during Ms. Burns’ career at Xerox, culminating to her new role as CEO. Carl Langsenkamp, Xerox Public Relations, quickly replied, noting that Ms. Burns’ held several jobs that encompassed product management. He also explained that Xerox describes certain positions in unique ways that may not be a standard in other companies.

Product-Manager-to-CEOThe notion that a Product Manager can and should emerge as an ultimate heir apparent to CEO of the company is one that has been raised many times. I had the epiphany (well, for me, anyway) after completing the Pragmatic Marketing product management training led by Steve Johnson that product managers and product marketers are uniquely skilled to ultimately serve as CEO. You can also Google “product manager to CEO”, hit “I’m Feeling Lucky”, and you should be directed to a very interesting online article on the product manager as CEO written by Barbara Tallent, who was herself a product manager-turned-CEO.

All that said, Product Managers (and again, yes, Product Marketing Managers) often still feel their opinions on strategic matters or key decisions are not heard or considered by senior management. This is because it remains up to a product manager to fill her or his worktime with those value-added activities that constitute true steps forward to the CEO corner office. These value-added activities are summed up in five key “soft” skills every product manager and marketer must master. This advice came from ZIGZAG Marketing Founder & Managing Partner John Mansour, who just spoke on this topic as guest speaker for the The Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) meeting just held on May 21…

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