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 Power of Critical Thinking in Marketing (or: Devil’s Advocate, Get Thee Behind Me!)

I read a great blog entry entitled Critical Thinkers vs. Critics by Mark Logic CEO Dave Kellogg. (Quick aside: Any blog by a CEO/Chairman/Founder that is regularly updated and features plenty of wisdom, wit and insight is evidence that company has a competitive advantage in leadership. Good on you, Dave.)

Dave Kellogg raises the important difference between a “critic,” a person who criticizes everything, generally without proposed solutions” and a “critical thinker,” a person who attacks ideas in the spirit of making them better, and who can hold both sides of an argument in their head at once.”

Point very well taken. I’d additionally define a critical thinker as someone who will also not allow herself/himself or others to fall victim to “paralysis by analysis.” Even more importantly, by virtue of being unafraid of taking a hard, unbiased look at issues and listening to others’ opinions, concerns and doubts, and in fact welcoming such open discussion, a critical thinker is also an optimist by nature.

I like how Dave assesses the level of critical thinking applied in the crafting of successful marketing positioning (emphasis added):

Critics “attack” other people’s ideas but not their own. Critical thinkers “attack” everyone’s ideas, especially their own. For certain disciplines (e.g., marketing positioning) one of my primary tests is not to examine the substance of a proposal, but instead to examine the critical thinking in the process that led to it [for example, reviewing a marketing proposal recommending a new company tag-line]:

  • How many other tag-lines did you think of?
  • Why didn’t you pick tag-line 3?
  • Did you consider tag-lines based on the higher-level notion of satisfaction?
  • What’s the argument against the tag-line you’re proposing?
  • What are the direct and indirect competitors tag-lines and their relative strengths and weaknesses?

As David Ogilvy once said: “good writing is slavery” (see page 33 of Ogilvy on Advertising). So is good positioning. And it comes from critical thinking and plenty of it.

I think delving into the multiple meanings of Dave’s word “attack” is important here, too.  A critical thinker will indeed “attack” an idea much differently than a critic. There is a world of difference between “attack,” as in how a critical thinker will “earnestly initiate” a rigorous debate of an idea, in such a comment as, “The European sales team will have concerns about the time they will need to devote to the new product. Let’s work out how we can address that concern and ensure they will have time to complete their deals in the pipeline,” versus how a critic might truly “attack,” as in, “beat down,” an idea with a discussion-dampering remark:  “Oh, the European sales team always marches to their own drummer. Mark my words, they will ignore the new product. I’ve seen it before.”

Dwight Schrute-A good example of an office criticHow to effectively deal with the “critic” is addressed in author Bruna Martinuzzi’s article on optimism, which she kindly allowed me to republish on this blog. Bruna accurately identifies the behavior of the “critic,” aka “devil’s advocate,” as symptomatic of general pessimism, which can discourage critical thinking:

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