ManoMano Tech  Team
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ManoMano Tech Team

Product Management — play it like Walt Disney

I’ve started showing Disney movies to my daughters and got curious about the making of such timeless products. In my research, I first made a detour and explored the music behind the Disney movies. I discovered the beautiful story of the Sherman brothers who composed many of the Disney iconic soundtracks (Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book…). My daughters are totally hooked and I’m probably the world biggest listener of “Let’s go fly a kite” on Spotify — bets open.

And then, I looked into the life & work of the man himself, how he conceived his products, how he ran his business, his attitude towards talents & technology. Besides the fascinating story of building an entertainment empire, it made me draw many parallels with my job as product manager. I found a lot of inspiration there that I felt like sharing.

User centricity as the key for a successful business

Walt Disney accepted no compromise on the user centricity principle because he was convinced this was the only way to make his business sustainably successful. So he concentrated on producing entertainment that his public would love, and even if that implied short term risks — both financial and technological risks — he sticked to that goal.

As he was experiencing with many major technological breakthroughs — animation, music synchronization, talking cartoons, color, long format — the user centricity principle was often challenging to maintain. The tech was not running perfectly, the production costs were exceeding the budget initially planned. Disney found some processes to mitigate the risks, for instance doing a lot of testing before the product was finished, and never compromised on the expected standard in the interest of the public.

That made him a very demanding and assertive man as you can feel in the quotes below. He kept the same approach when building the Disneyland project, the very first amusement park he developed in 1955:

-Marc Davis (executive creative for the DisneyLand project): “Well, I’ve got an expensive way and a cheap way of doing this.”

-Walt Disney: “Marc, you and I do not worry about whether anything is cheap or expensive. We only worry if it’s good. I have a theory that if it’s good, the public will pay you back for it. I’ve got a big building full of all kinds of guys who worry about costs and money. You and I just worry about doing a good show.”

Another example, still around the development of Disneyland, and whether or not an administration building should be built inside the park:

“There isn’t going to be any administration building. The public isn’t coming here to see an administration building. Besides, I don’t want you guys sitting behind desks. I want you out in the park, watching what people are doing and finding out how you can make the place more enjoyable for them”.

Building products products that your users love is the best way to drive a successful business in the long term. To achieve that, you need to think about your users first, truly understand the needs and pains of your users and acting upon. It always pays in the long run. I insist on the long run part, because this mindset might be sometimes challenging to maintain in regards to day to day problematics. Business or operational considerations might come across the user’s interest: a project is too costly, takes too long to develop, high execution is hard to achieve, a business opportunity represents a potential risk on the user experience but will provide fast money. Our role as product manager is to be the expert of our target users/customers, and work on creating value for them, which serves the business of the company.

Product personality as the key for differentiation

Walt Disney had a specific approach to product personality. Personality of his stories, of the music of his shows, and of the overall brand of his productions. That focus on personality is also coming from the obsession with the public interest. Disney wanted to create an emotional bound with his public. That’s the core of the differentiation which explains that 84 years later we still enjoy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, it’s not by accident that he used his own name on all his products. That was a very clear calculation and here is why:

“Look — Disney is a thing, an image in the public mind. Disney is something they think of as a kind of entertainment, a kind of family thing, and it’s all wrapped up in the name Disney. If we start pulling that apart by calling it “a Bill Walsh Production for Walt Disney” or “a Jim Algar True Life Adventure for Walt Disney” then the name ‘Disney’ won’t mean as much any more. We’d be cutting away at what we’ve built up over all these years. You see, I’m not Disney any more. I used to be Disney, but now Disney is something we’ve built up in the public mind over the years. It stands for something, and you don’t have to explain what it is to the public. They know what Disney is when they hear about our films or go to Disneyland. They know they’re gonna get a certain quality, a certain kind of entertainment. And that’s what Disney is.”

The original cover of Disney’s first feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

“What is the difference between our product and the other? We have never tried to hog anything. The thing that makes us different is our way of thinking, our judgment and experience acquired over the years. Giving it “heart”. Others have understood the public. We seem to know when to “tap the heart”. Others have hit the intellect. We can hit them in an emotional way. Those who appeal to the intellect only appeal to a very limited group.”

As a product manager your first task is to know your users by heart. And as Walt Disney tells it clearly from the above quote, there’s no better way than to talk and observe them. This knowledge is crucial to make a good prioritization of the features to be developed, because you want to tackle the problems or opportunities which really matters to your users.

But your user knowledge is not just there to create roadmaps, it’s the material to design and build your product using empathy. In other words, good products answer the users problems, great products answer the users problems and create an emotional bound with them. This is what gives personality to your product and differentiates it in the eyes — in the heart! — of your users. It can take shape in many different aspects: interactions, usability, rewards, copywriting, ambassadors… Something that provides a landmark to the users, again and again, in the long term.

This emotional approach to the users is very often developed in communication campaigns around the brand, but unfortunately often underestimated in product development. So next time you’re thinking about solutions for a user’s problem, try to involve your heart not just your brain. This topic is very important to me and I’ll dedicate an article about it.

Curiosity as the key for a healthy team collaboration

Walt Disney started as a cartoonist in Kansas City. Then he got interested in animation, which was a nascent technique. He first worked in advertising and then moved to entertainment, and expanded on the art of storytelling. At a time when cartoons were just short interludes between films at the movie theatre, he was the first one to create fully animated feature films. While he very rapidly gave up drawing and animating himself, leaving it to people that were more expert than him, he kept a constant curiosity and interest towards the work of experts: artists, animators, and later architects, engineers of his parks… In fact, he explains his success on this eagerness to learn and high respect for expertise.

“There were a lot of cartoonist there, but none of them had my ambition to do anything else. The artist just did his work and turned it over to the cameraman to photograph. But I wasn’t satisfied with that. I watched the cameraman do his work, and I asked questions: “What’s your exposure?” “Why do you shoot it that way?” He was secretive at first, but then he told me all about it, and he let me run the camera myself. So I learned…”

Product managers are very versatile people and it’s not expected from them to be an expert in one hard skill (i.e. coding, designing, data analysis…). On the contrary, soft skills matter a lot and especially curiosity. Get interested in the work of your team mates who are building the product with you. That’s a sign of respect and the ground root for a healthy collaboration. Being able to ask questions to the experts in your team, whether it’s a front end developer, a product designer, on why they decided to code this feature this way, or design this element that way, creates motivation and emulation.

Coaching & training as the key for innovation

As in many cases when you’re building your business in an industry where new technologies are involved, you’re going to need the right talents and they are going to be scarce and competitive to get. Before digging into the work of Walt Disney I didn’t realize all the innovations he brought to the entertainment industry. Starting with animation which was stammering when he entered the business. So Walt Disney needed some talents and very early realized he would have to coach and train them. Not just to do the job, but to reach the level of quality and innovation he envisioned for his production.

In 1931, only a few years after launching his studio and even if he was far from financial stability, Walt Disney created a Disney Art School and trained his staff with after work classes that he entirely paid for. He hired a classic art teacher from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles to conduct the classes with the idea of combining the high execution standards of classic drawing and the specific requirements of animation, in order to bring the quality of his artists and his productions to the next level. Encouraged by the good results of the night classes, he expanded the concept to “a very systematic training course for our young animators… and a plan of approach for our older animators”.

If you’re leading a team of product managers then you know there’s a talent war going on there. The job is quite new so there’s no way you’re going to find many highly trained people on the market. So train them! And instead of subsidizing external trainings, why not create your own school of excellence. There’s not a single way of doing product management as it depends so much on the nature of the product, the type of industry, the maturity of the company etc. So building your own internal training program is also a great way to create your own framework of product management. The one that will drive your future innovations and grow the talents of your teams. Again maybe the topic of another article?

Disney artists drawing a live deer in 1942 ahead of starting animation on Bambi

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