Ben Horowitz book ‘The Hard Thing About The Hard Things’ is the best book I have read for business advice. It should be compulsory reading for all (tech) business CEOs, Managing Directors, Product Managers, HR Managers, Intrapreneurs, and Entrepreneurs. If you have not read it you should.
Ben recalls experiences from his various companies and projects that will teach you so much, no matter how big your business or what cycle of growth or decline your company is in.
Ben’s advice is great for every Product Manager. He talks about only being a good Manager when you have experienced and managed through the hard times. About making tough decisions in the short term to benefit the long term. But most companies are not like that, the easy thing about easy things is of course — they are easy. And most people and companies want things to be easy.
Most of the companies in your city are not opeating in the leagues that Ben operates in? If it was soccer, Ben plays in the World Club Cup. You have to win your National league and your Continental league in order to play at the World stage. By the same ‘scale’, most companies in your city are lower league or even semi-professional league standard, and 95% would be amateur recreation teams.
One theme throughout the book I found particularly thought-provoking is Ben’s take on innovation and competition.
A friend of mine is an iOS contract developer who always finds work. Yes he is good, but most of the projects he gets asked to do start with ‘we want an app…’ When questioned ‘why?’ most respond: because competitor X has one and it has been successful.
The other scenario I see is when companies have a competitor with higher revenues per customer, larger user bases, or superior product. The companies will use methodologies such as Kano Research to ask their customers which features they should implement. And base the options they lay out before the customer on existing ideas or competitor features. This is the easy thing to do!
Ben H opines:
“The hard thing is implementing a product strategy. Figuring out the right product is the Innovators job not the customers job; The customer only knows what they think they want based on their experience with the existing products. It is the innovators job to take in to account everything that is possible.”
Everyone is asking for innovation, but few companies who say they want Innovation genuinely follow through and put the people and processes in place to deliver. If you bury innovation too far down your company hierarchy it will not permeate through your entire business. It has to come from the top.
“Innovation requires a mixture of knowledge, skill and courage… Sometimes only the founder/CEO can have the courage to make the innovative decisions.”
Innovators— I would class Intrapreneurs as innovative even if only within the bounds of your own company—need to be empowered to deliver and given the resources and budgets to do so.
But we have targets to hit
The main reasons for not doing the innovative stuff is that it is often too difficult to make it fit in to a Profit and Loss (P&L) business case. Innovation projects and teams therefore do not fit well with established ways of doing things, finance departments and CFOs. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, there is no middle-ground — it is not a Roadrunner cartoon — you have to commit and go for it.
Many companies, including very successful ones, have resorted to managing by numbers, marketing by numbers and product development by numbers. When is the last time you saw a ‘viral’ reported campaign or product which came about through a spreadsheet, and not because the team of people involved were creative.
“Managing by numbers is like painting by numbers. It is for amateurs and it restricts creativity.”
Be careful what you wish for
Most companies want to be innovative, they want to be market leaders and known for being different, for being engaging, and for producing stellar products. What most of these companies need is consistency, 99.9% uptime, level growth margins to hit forecast and they have staff that they ask this from because they deliver it.
It is unthinkable that you would ask the same people to be innovative. Innovation is looking at things differently, doing things in a different way, The innovators are easily dismissed as quirky/flakey/loose/orange-socks-pink-shoelaces, but they are the people who will get you what you want.
“If you over-value delivery and focus on producing on time, on strict revenue and margin targets many will underfund R&D; strengthening their position in the shortfall but foregoing the long term. As a result Managers get what they ask for but rarely what they want.”
If you do have to use the same resource then be fair to them and fair to yourself — train them. I do believe that you can use techniques to draw out people’s creativity; creativity which is suppressed in order to be laser-like focused on delivery. Do not expect ideas and innovation to happen in a one-hour meeting.
- Take the team out of the everyday environment, and let them know this is not a ‘normal’ meeting they go to; One easy way is to show a 2 minute video of epic fails at the start.
- Give them enough time to stop thinking about the other tasks they are in the middle of.
- Give them stimulus; video works particularly well if you can show them relevant content for the session ahead.
- Video your sessions so you do not need to take notes which stops flow
- No idea is a bad idea until it is put live, in these sessions encourage your teams to say anything and everything in they think of.
The hard thing is assessing your business against the standards Ben Horowitz sets in his book, identifying your weaknesses and then taking actions to change your company for the better. Every Company can do this, no company can rest on its laurels; there are few industries that are not being disrupted by startups and innovative, leaner companies, and believe me — more and more of the people powering these companies will have orange socks and pink shoelaces!