What Product Managers Can Learn From Dr. Seuss and Anthony Bourdain
Insistence on the highest standards for their products!
Dr. Seuss is known to sway generations of children with his witty yet endearing books with underlying bits of morals and life lessons embedded in them. Whereas I grew up watching (and reading) Anthony Bourdain travelling through exotic landscapes and experimenting in more avant garde comestibles.
Both had a passion for the creative arts — Dr. Seuss being a prolific writer, cartoonist and animator, and Bourdain being a celebrated chef, adventurer and author in his own right.
These two extraordinary figures, highly accomplished in their individual spheres, one in the literary scene in the 20th century and the other on the culinary — adventure arena in the 21st century, could not be more similar. They both insisted on the highest standards for their products.
Dr. Seuss was known for his hardball habits with his publishers:
‘Many authors who have turned in a manuscript and learned that it has been accepted are happy to leave the technicalities of its transformation into a book up to their publishers. Not Geisel. Invading the production department, he will dump three or four moldy bits of crayon, or some scraps torn from matchbooks … say that they are precisely the shades of color he wants used in this or that illustration. ‘— The New Yorker.
Giesel, or Dr. Seuss, used to be so thorough with his works, that he would complain if he perceived one color to be a tiny bit off, even in the thirteenth or fourteenth printing of one of his works.
‘After more than a hundred thousand copies of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” had been sold, he decided that a single black line on the original jacket was too black, and a new jacket was made up. ‘ — The New Yorker.
One of his neighbours in La Jolla once told him:
“Be tough. Keep your standards up. It’s your product, and don’t you let anybody talk you into letting it slip.”
This TV personality of much–applauded TV shows such as ‘Parts Unknown’, ‘No Reservations’ and many others had a knack of obsessing over his work.
From the moment Bourdain conceives of an episode, he obsesses over the soundtrack, and for the sequence with Obama he wanted to include the James Brown song “The Boss.” When the producers cannot afford to license a song, they often commission music that evokes the original. For a “Big Lebowski” homage in a Tehran episode, they arranged the recording of a facsimile, in Farsi, of Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” But Bourdain wanted the original James Brown track, no matter how much it cost. — The New Yorker.
With his biting humour, easygoing but unwavering humble attitude, Bourdain was known to have his way with his work.
“I don’t know who’s paying for it,” he said. “But somebody’s fucking paying for it.” — Anthony Bourdain
Lessons for Product Management
The above anecdotes made me think about how true they ring in my life as a Product Manager.
Yes, we as Product Managers are judged and trained on building beautiful products with frugal means. We’re reminded by entrepreneurs and startup men to be lean, agile, iterate, fail and fail faster still. To the extend that you belong to either one of the extreme thought — camps : frugal achievers (eg. Drew Houston of Dropbox) OR detail — obsessed trailblazers (eg. Steve Jobs of the Apple & Pixar fame).
If you become too dogged at the beginning of building your product, you run the risk of landing smack on your face before you’ve found the product — market fit. Whereas if you don’t create a perfect enough product from the get-go that users LOVE, you face the risk of not getting another chance altogether.
But, do we need to have this clear demarcation always? Why can’t we build products the lean way, whilst maintaining product standards and quality?
In fact, one of the most meticulous company in the world, Amazon, does endorse frugality, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention; but also advocates for continuous raising of the bar and insists on delivering high quality products, services and processes.
If we’re solving the real job-to-be-done for the customer, why can’t we nitpick on the problem, create the best solution for the job whilst keeping all the bells and whistles away till we do find a sweet spot in the market?
If we do start obsessing over customer problems, instead of being consumed by the solutions; if we iterate, fail sooner, learn fast and experiment; fix issues for the long term rather than be myopic about the solutions at hand; if we up-the-ante after each release/launch/deployment and set our sights on higher grounds; maybe we could deliver high — quality sustainable products that customers themselves obsess over.
The team and others around you might think that your standards are unusually high, but they’ll eventually learn to ride with the punches (*types in a tongue in cheek way!*)
As one editor of Dr. Seuss put it:
“From a genius you tolerate a little bit more.”
References and great pieces of writing :
The World of Dr. Seuss
The face of Theodor Seuss Geisel-an arresting one, with soft eyes and a long, beaky nose-is not nearly as familiar as…