Beware “The Curse of Too Much Knowledge”

Note: This article, originally posted on July 29, 2014, was updated and rewritten on January 18, 2021.

A great passage from How to Become CEO, Jeffrey Fox’s first business bestseller, has stuck with me over the years:

One of the leading US automakers, desperate to improve gas mileage during the 1970’s energy crisis, called for its engineers to redesign its cars to be less heavy. But veteran engineers insisted that just couldn’t be done. Reducing the weight of cars, they said, would be unsafe, impractical and just plain impossible. Of course, they were wrong.

The automaker then brought in recent engineering grads, who quickly proceeded to shed hundreds of pounds off the cars with no adverse impact. The new engineers were successful because they were not constrained by preconceptions from years – even decades! – of expertise. In other words, they didn’t “know enough” to conclude the task had to be impossible! 

This story is a great example of what my friend and marketing colleague Neil Baron, managing director of Baron Strategic Partners, calls “The Curse of Too Much Knowledge” – an all too common phenomenon among innovative companies.

As Neil has emphasized in his value proposition workshops and marketing articles for Fast Company [ 1 ] [ 2 ], Neil warns The Curse of Too Much Knowledge often results in off-the-mark value propositions and product messaging that fail to resonate with prospective customers:

The very expertise that enables companies to develop breakthrough products and services can undermine their ability to sell and market them. Our own knowledge gets in the way.

The benefit to the customer is considered intuitively obvious and it is assumed that the customer will know why the innovation will help them. This can make it hard for vendors to relate to their customers effectively.

Neil explains the primary root cause of The Curse of Too Much Knowledge is an abundance of subject matter expertise (SME) alongside a shortage of the skills essential to successfully commercialize a breakthrough innovation:

Product knowledge is [often] the most important  job requirement. However, having an experienced product expert lead your commercialization effort almost ensures that you will be cursed by the Curse of Too Much Knowledge.

Instead, companies should strive to find people to lead their commercialization effort who have successful product launch experience or a proven track record communicating complex ideas [and] have the ability to question your assumptions about your product and your customer. 

Here are three additional suggestions to help “reverse the curse” of too much knowledge:

      • Go to the periphery. In addition to existing customers, communicate with co-workers in different departments, distant geographic regions, business units exploring new technology and others who are not personally “invested” in the technology. Discover the disconnects between SMEs living your products every day and the “periphery” of the business.
      • Talk to the “nons”, as in speaking with non-customers, non-employees and non-suppliers; those who do not interact with the company, whether for a particular reason (why?) or simply being unaware of your organization. What are their reactions to your value proposition? Do they “get it” and express some interest in it? If not, why not?
      • Engage your prospective customer so they say to you, “Tell me more.” This is critical. Your product’s exceptional features are only relevant to your customer to the extent that they deliver new business-building, problem-solving benefits. That means your first responsibility as a marketer – or a seller – is to lead with those benefits (the “what” and “why” of your product) and not your product’s features. Your second responsibility is to be ready with succinct, compelling details – when asked by your prospective customer (the “how”). Think of these two responsibilities as your fastball and curve ball.

        In his breakthrough original Solution Selling book, Michael Bosworth wrote that the best salespeople “keep all their product’s amazing features in their pockets [until the right time] – because they don’t use their product to sell – they use their product to prove.” He also added this:

        If you see your competitors [setting up a slide presentation] to [expound upon] the history of their company and their product’s or service’s amazing features and advantages, smile to yourself. They will be easy for you to beat. They don’t know how to create a buyer.

        Using Michael Bosworth’s same yardstick, if a marketer begins any given product messaging effort by deep-diving into a discourse on features instead of customer wants and needs, that’s a red flag suggesting they don’t know how to create a marketing lead – effectively or at scale.

    Simply put, The Curse of Too Much Knowledge is the malady of being so knowledgeable, so brilliant about something, that you can’t explain it simply and effectively. Organizations that understand the risks and implications of The Curse of Too Much Knowledge are much more likely to actively avoid it all together, while effectively marketing and selling their technology and other innovative products.

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Marketers: What’s Your Fastball? What’s Your Curve Ball?

I’d like to share an intriguing baseball story that also happens to complement some fantastic marketing advice from a work friend of mine.

First, the baseball story:

Steve Dalkowski

Steve Dalkowski: The fastest MLB pitcher you never heard of

Until just a few years ago, I had never heard of Steve Dalkowski, the fastest pitcher in Major League Baseball history. He routinely threw a fastball well over 100 mph (161km/h) with top speeds of over 125 mph (201 km/h)! As a minor leaguer in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Dalkowski struck out 1,396 batters in just 995 innings.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski’s incredible fastball was also incredibly wild and unpredictable: He walked 1,354 batters and won only 46 of the 236 games he started.

But there’s much more to Steve Dalkowski’s story – with an important related marketing lesson as well.

Steve Dalkowski

Steve Dalkowski’s performance improved dramatically in the early 60’s while playing for Earl Weaver, who was then manager for the Baltimore Orioles’ double-A affiliate. In 1962, Dalkowski had the best year of his career, giving up less than one walk per inning for the first time, and a 52-inning stretch with an amazing 104 strikeouts and only 11 walks. During 1963 Spring Training, after pitching six straight hitless innings in relief, Dalkowski was told by the Orioles that he had finally made the team.

How did Steve Dalkowski transform his performance? Earl Weaver realized Dalkowski just got confused and pitched more wildly than ever while coaches tried to teach him how to throw a change-up, hold a base runner or execute other unfamiliar plays. Weaver concluded if the team was to ever capitalize on Dalkowski’s potential, he would have to keep things very simple. So Weaver had Dalkowski focus on nothing but throwing his fastball and maybe an occasional slider. Two pitches. Just throw strikes.

Keeping it simple is game-winning advice for marketers as well. Buyers are smarter than ever, and less likely than ever to bother trying to figure out what your technology does. If they get confused or distracted by your message, they’ll simply move on.

Which leads me to my marketing colleague who recently shared with me some simple yet fantastic advice from a rock star technology sales manager. Asked by my friend how he became so successful, he answered, “Because I know my fastball and I know my curve ball.”

He explained his ‘fastball’ was the #1 product of interest to the vast majority of his prospects; his ‘curve ball’ was his second product. Whether he opted for the fastball or curve ball depended on the needs of his prospect.

The company had other products, of course; and while he didn’t ignore those products, he knew his ultimate success depended on his ability to deliver a clear, compelling sales pitch for his top two products – his fastball and curve ball. So he focused right away on practicing those two sales pitches and made sure they were strikes.

Sales and Marketing Fastball

While that rock star sales person described his fastball and curve ball as being two different products, the logic still holds for other scenarios. If, for example, a company offers a single technology platform or solution as opposed to multiple products, then the “fastball” could be an engaging value proposition to answer the question, “What is it?” The “curve ball” could in turn succinctly answer, “How does it work?”

Marketing’s single most important responsibility is to define the company’s fastball and curve ball and then clearly communicate it – internally and externally – to set up your marketing campaigns and sales team for success.

In a cruel twist of fate, Steve Dalkowski severely strained a tendon in his elbow while pitching relief in the Orioles’ final 1963 pre-season game. With his post-injury fastball topping out at only 90MPH, Dalkowski never made it to the major leagues again and was out of baseball for good in 1966. One can only wonder what his pitching career might have been had he not languished for years, no doubt being constantly told to “try harder” before Earl Weaver’s wise leadership guidance.

Similarly, if current marketing messaging is not working, “trying harder” in a multitude of ways and directions with the same overall messaging will not help and instead merely waste time. The future is now. Business circumstances and technologies all change without advance notice. Marketing leaders must be willing to allow trying something new, starting with, I suggest, focusing on answering two simple but critical questions…

What’s your fastball?

What’s your curve ball?

How to Play and Win the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster

I have played chess since I was 9 or 10 years old and to this day still play in chess tournaments, live and online. Anyone interested in learning how to play chess should check out The Game of Chess by Tarrasch. Written over 75 years ago, it is still the best book of all time for absolute chess beginners.

2020-05-04_11-47-41

Me playing (and winning 😄) speed chess at Central Park, NYC

One of the best chess books of all time for experienced players looking to become chess masters is Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov. Unlike many chess books which often become obsolete over just a few years, Kotov’s book is just as valuable today as when it was first published in 1978.

Kotov’s advice for winning chess bears many similarities to the best practices for winning the product marketing game.

From Kotov’s book:

Players who wishes to improve, who want to win in competitive play, must develop their ability to evaluate the current position… Then the player moves on to general assessment [and then] draws up a plan.

Evaluate the current position. Just as a player must accurately review the current status of a given chess position, so too marketers begin with an awareness where their products stand in the current marketplace.

Evaluating a chess position, Kotov wrote, requires breaking down the position into its key elements, each of which he assigned one of two categories that product marketers can appreciate: permanent advantages and temporary advantages. So, winning chess first requires identifying your advantages, understanding how the advantages relate to one another and which advantages are most important.

This chess evaluation process is similar to the product positioning process: Identifying and documenting the features of your product that relate to the most important problems your target market/target buyer must solve, and how your product solves those problems in ways your competitors do not or can not offer.

General Assessment. After a chess player has completed a review of the key elements, she summaries her findings in her mind in the form of an internal monologue; e.g., “My opponent has two weak pawns, both defended by his bishop…,” and so on.  This is what Kotov calls the “general assessment.”

This general assessment is similar to writing a customer value proposition statement, which is derived from the product positioning process. The value proposition statement is your proclamation to the world what your product does, what benefits it provides for which customers and how you do it uniquely well and better than alternative products. There are many good templates for crafting effective value propositions; here’s my favorite.

Planning. Now a chess player is ready to formulate a concrete plan, linked organically from his general assessment; e.g., “I will force my opponent to trade his bishop for mine, leaving those two weak pawns undefended, which I will attack with my rooks…” and so on).

The road to a product marketing plan has further steps, of course, including the creation of:

  • Buyer personas (composite portraits of your target customers and their wants and needs your product fulfills)
  • Product collateral and other marketing assets, that are targeted to buyer personas and reinforce your customer value proposition
  • Go-to market strategy; which leads to the selection of specific marketing tools and programs

Still, the point remains that the selection of marketing tactical activities comes only after a strategic assessment process.

A Final Word: Avoid “Kotov’s Syndrome”!

It happens to the best of us… even Magnus Carlsen, the current World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion, and World Blitz Chess Champion.

Alexander Kotov also described a bad situation (now referred to as Kotov’s Syndrome) that even the best grandmasters have experienced: A player thinks very hard for a very long time in a complicated position, but just can’t find a viable move. Running low on time, (s)he finally and impulsively makes a poor move that loses the game immediately.

Kotov explains that this kind of blunder occurs from feeling cognitively overwhelmed by the complexities of the position. Players experiencing such a feeling should calmly recognize it is due simply to a misunderstanding of the key elements of the position and, therefore, an incomplete, useless general assessment. The solution is to simply step back and perform these steps again from the beginning.

Similarly, an effective marketing plan cannot be developed without genuine understanding and application of product marketing basics. Don’t just go through the motions of filling out product planning and customer value proposition templates with your personal assumptions just because you’re in a rush. Be patient. Go through those processes with care, using input from colleagues and existing customers to develop a well-informed, winning product marketing plan.

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How to Write a Case Study (Without Shooting Your Eye Out with a Red Ryder BB Gun)

A Christmas Story is a must-see classic movie. A lot of people apparently agree, as the 1983 classic is featured on TBS as a 24 hour TV marathon every Christmas.

A Christmas Story even offers an interesting product marketing-related lesson about case study writing. No, really! After all, Ralphie wrote one in the movie, remember…?

Ralphie-Christmas-Story

Chances are you have seen this classic Christmas comedy, featuring Ralphie, a 9-year-old boy living in 1940’s Indiana who desperately wanted an Official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Unfortunately for Ralphie, whenever he even hinted about getting one, his mother always said, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” 

Of course, Ralphie refused to give up. For a school assignment, he wrote an essay (aka case study) all about the Red Rider BB gun he yearned for and why it was so important that he get one for Christmas. Ralphie was certain his teacher would be so enthralled with his essay she’d give him an A+. He could then triumphantly show his parents his grade – and essay – and surely earn his BB gun.

Suffice to say Ralphie’s teacher was less than impressed with his writing:

Poor Ralphie felt the same frustration experienced by anyone who has ever written a case study that failed to gain the interest and curiosity from the intended target audience.

By following a customer-focused, time-focused template when researching and writing case studies, we can instead impress readers with our customer’s success, and motivate them to learn more.

When developing a case study with an existing customer, I work through a simple series of questions focusing on the customer’s experience at three key points in time:

  1. Before your product or service: the drudgery your customer had previously endured.
  2. The customer’s “moment of epiphany”: when the customer realized your product or service was the right one.
  3. After your product or service: the old drudgery is gone, replaced with success!

First, what was the customer doing before your product or service? The more intolerable drudgery we can genuinely convey here, the better. Quantifying the drudgery our customer experienced in this “before” stage is also essential: how many dollars or personnel-hours were being lost by your customer? Less tangible but no less real consequences of this drudgery are welcome as well; for example, what business decisions might have been compromised due to the unacceptable status quo?

Next, ask your customer how and when they realized, “Yes! This is the right solution for us! The dark days of our drudgery are over! Help is on the way!” I’m only half-kidding here: we must convey to the reader what triggered the customer’s decision to buy; what led the customer to confidently conclude that our product or service is uniquely capable of solving their problems.

Identify the unique features and functionality relevant to this moment of epiphany, and how they translate into providing business benefits – a process Pragmatic Marketing calls marketecture:

Marketecture matches the key features of your product with the problems your target customers need to solve. (Concept from Pragmatic Marketing. Image by MU)

Now, focus on the “after” phase: your product or service has been implemented for the customer, leaving a trail of roses in your path. Again, I’m only half-kidding: we must convey that the customer now knows their decision was a winner. What new success has replaced the old drudgery?

Take the time to carefully walk through with your customer one or more specific,  formerly costly and frustrating business processes. How has your product or service resolved the drudgery that once plagued this business process? What measurable savings in money or time has the customer since realized? What plans does the company have to expand the use of your product or service? 

When writing the actual case study, quote the customer directly wherever possible. Direct quotes from the customer declaring in their own words how valuable your product or service is to them will always earn more attention and credibility from readers than any narrative text.

Also… please avoid using those generic case study sub-headings; i.e., The Problem, The Solution and Results. They provide zero value to the reader and offer nothing in the way of SEO (a Google search for problem solution results as of this writing yields 1.4 billion hits). Your case study sub-headings should be written such that if your reader reads only the sub-headings, they still get a TL;DR understanding of your case study. Here is an example from some previous work of mine. Just read the main headings and you’ll see what I mean!

Did Ralphie still get his beloved Red Rider BB gun despite of his unsuccessful writing effort? Let’s put it this way: if he did, it was no thanks to Santa. Of course, product marketers must rely on more than luck to get the favorable attention of potential new customers. Compelling case studies are a one of the best means to do so. By asking your customer time-focused questions and actively listening, the customer will essentially tell you what relevant information belongs in the case study – before, during and after their wise decision to purchase your product or service.

“Begin with the Beginning in Mind” for Content Creation

Many people are familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (although I much prefer Dale Carnegie). One of Covey’s “7 Habits” is to “begin with the end in mind.”

However, when crafting product messaging, I suggest you “begin with the beginning in mind.”

When writing a datasheet, web copy, case study or other collateral piece, I start by thinking about what the first paragraph should say that will make the reader want to keep reading and learn more. For a new website, I think first about what the home page splash screen should say and what graphic should accompany it.

If the first impression of your messaging is not compelling, is not engaging, your audience will probably tune out rather than bother to continue paying attention.

For a presentation deck, I like to define a really good “icebreaker” slide first before anything else. It might be a compelling – even alarming – stat with a strong supporting graphic. It can be a quick story or interactive game, as long as it is directly relevant to your presentation. I once attended a breakout in which the presenter led off with an awkward “tell to your neighbor something interesting about yourself” exercise that had nothing to do with his chosen topic. It merely distracted the audience from his presentation.

My friends and colleagues know I generally like to go with humor; for example, I recently led a presentation on replacing expensive commercial software with reliable, supported open source technology. My icebreaker slide was this excerpt of a classic Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. I wanted to convey, in an engaging way, the core message that no one likes to feel like they’re being ripped off, forced to pay too much for something, and not being treated fairly… and that includes paying too much for commercial licenses with pricing accelerants and legalese intended to lock in their customers. Notice too how Moe, the bully shaking Calvin down for a quarter, is now in the minds of the audience as a symbol for their unrepentantly high-cost commercial software vendor taking too much of their money.

From that intro, slides presenting the proof points for smart and substantial open source savings and how to get started flowed naturally from that icebreaker.

“Begin with the beginning in mind” also applies to demand generation emails. Even before the intro paragraph, come up with the subject line. I have received three emails in a row from a vendor, each with the same bland subject line of “[Company Name] Newsletter — New e-Book”. I can’t imagine the open rate for these emails is anywhere near acceptable. I don’t accept the notion that email marketing is dead; only that poor email marketing is dead. During the company’s recent Boston World Tour stop, Salesforce.com agreed. Going beyond A/B testing, SFDC proceeded to present new features to make it easier to personalize email subject lines to optimize engagement as soon as the email hits the inbox. Begin with the beginning in mind.

As frustrating as it is, if the beginning of your message is not engaging, the end and middle of your collateral, no matter how fine, scarcely matters. But if you spend the extra time up front by beginning with a great beginning, a great introduction, you’ll find the rest of your message will flow from there much more easily – and your target audience will be much more willing to receive it and act on it.

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”

Today’s Best Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Football-and-MarketingI read a great Ad Age article, Four Talent Categories You Need to Win in a Connected Worldby Chris Kuenne. Recognizing that many marketing organizations still cling to “old school” marketing and PR, Chris Kuenne provided a timely description of the must-have talents, skills and attitudes found in today’s leading marketing organizations that actively contribute to business growth and success.

To support his key point that “the old set of skills and conventional deployment will not work,” Chris Kuenne offered up a sports analogy:

In [American] football… each player goes one-on-one against his opponent, helping the team advance the ball in a linear fashion down the field. Marketing over the past 50 years reflected this linear approach, in which a brand’s marketing plan specified a highly planned, seldom altered, set of initiatives… Today marketing is closer to rugby. All players handle multiple roles, using many different skills…

I agree with Chris Kuenne’s historical and current assessment of the marketing function; however, today’s game of football is actually brimming with innovative tactics. I see a lot of parallels between the practices of winning modern pro football teams and winning marketing organizations:

Transformation through Innovation. Both football and marketing have benefited dramatically from innovation. The “linear, seldom-altered” football game Chris Kuenne referred sounds more like how football was played over a century ago, when the most successful teams, notably the Army Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy, had a predictable but powerful smash-mouth running game. 

And so it went, until Notre Dame, in 1913, unveiled an innovation that would transform the game: The forward pass, which was recently legalized but remained widely ignored. Quarterback Gus Dorais and future football legend tight end Knute Rockne led Notre Dame’s surprise passing attack that surprised and confused the Army Cadets defense. The Fighting Irish cruised to a 35-13 upset win.

At roughly the same time as Notre Dame’s game-changing use of the forward pass, John Wanamaker, the pioneer of the department store, made his famous remark, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Similar frustrations by marketers have continued right up to present day!

Thankfully, marketing innovations today are replacing decades of linear, seldom-altered, interruption marketing with a still-evolving paradigm of content marketing, permission marketing and marketing automation technologies. The marketing function is undergoing its own game-changing, “forward pass” of innovation and transformation.

Improvisation. In the football game of an earlier era, the coach’s called play was the play, no matter how obviously ready the defense was ready for it. Today’s football calls for champion quarterbacks to decipher disguised defenses in real-time and possibly “call an audible” – a quickly-improvised new play. Teammates must also recognize the need to improvise a play as well: wide receivers must know when to “cut their route” and expect a very quick pass in response to an anticipated rush on the quarterback. The defense must be ready to change its coverages at a moment’s notice as well.

The old school coach’s “command and control” of a football game has given way to much more flexible play-by-play in response to real-time game situations. In similar fashion, members of winning marketing organizations are afforded the autonomy, and have the skills, to make real-time corrections during a marketing campaign or other activities, and do so collaboratively with others on the team.

An obsession for analytics. Today’s most effective professional teams – not just “Moneyball” baseball – but pro football, basketball and hockey as well – are utilizing data analytics in ways and depths unimaginable even a decade ago. Sports analytics can help predict future success on game day and optimize success off the field (e.g., demand-driven ticket prices, non-game day events and functions). Celtics co-owner and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca called Boston “a new Florence” for sports analytics.

A similar analytic renaissance within marketing is now in full swing. I encourage you to visit Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist and start with one of Scott’s all-time favorite posts, Rise of the Marketing Technologist. The active use of analytics is a force multiplier for effective marketing as it is for successful sport teams.

Leaders with genuine acumen and leadership skills. Chris Kuenne provided advice to CMOs equally applicable to football coaches when he wrote that leaders “must encourage collaboration across radically different temperaments, skills and backgrounds.” That’s an accurate description of football and marketing teams alike.

Just as important are the coach’s/CMO’s own qualifications: how many, how much of “hard skills” – the vital talents, skills and attitudes identified by Chris Kuenne – does the leader in question really possess? Has the coach/CMO demonstrated his or her “soft skills” – a proven ability to “attract, inspire and retain the best talent”? Authentic leaders, like champion coaches, attract and inspire highly talented professionals.  Poor coaches and poor business leaders repel talented people.

Pro football fans will recall the unfortunate failure of Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress, resulting in a rare midseason firing of a head coach back in 2010. Brad Childress’ implosion should serve as a cautionary tale for those in any executive position lacking genuine leadership skills. Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com wrote:

Brad Childress had a distant relationship at best with his players, feuding with most key veterans at one point or another. And his schemes were uninspiring and rigid, routinely minimizing the skills of talented players… They felt neither inspired nor challenged.

Winning marketing organizations, much like the best football teams, are typically led by savvy, authentic leaders who encourage innovative thinking, seek out new analytic insights, understand key challenges and needs, and translate that understanding into new, engaging customer experiences that build new business. They are the ones setting new rules for marketing success.