Thursday, May 10, 2012

Product Management: fight the status quo

I want to share a story that I heard on Fresh Air by Terry Gross.  Terry had two guests on her show today.  They were New York Times writers Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich.  They reported on American horse racing industry's inhumane treatment of race horses.  Because of lax regulation and oversight, race horses are routinely injected with excessive amount of pain killers which endangers not only horses but also jockeys as well.  They were reporting that it's not uncommon for race horses to break their legs during the race tossing jockeys off to the ground.

Understand your different customer sets and
fight the status quo to get your solution adopted.
It's a sad story to listen to.  It's sadder because we all recognize the problem but refuses to fix it.  Drape and Bogdanich reported that while racing horse industry recognizes the problem they are not willing to fix it because they are a part of the system.  Their incentives are not aligned with fixing and improving the system.  They are simply playing by the rule as written, and everyone in the system is letting the status quo continue because it's something they know how to work with.

Drape explains this to Terry Gross:

"The economic ecosystem of horse racing is very much out of whack. Everybody has their own agenda and their own set of interests. Racetracks want full fields so they will attract betting money, and they take a percentage of that. Breeders want sounder horses, because they are taking them to auction, and they want to get the highest price. 
Horsemen, trainers, owners, they want to run for high purses. So that's why they increasingly turn to the casino model. So what happens is you have four or five groups at odds with each other, and the only thing they can agree on is: Let's kind of keep it the same, because it's been working."
I see lot of parallels in Drape's description of horse racing industry with customers that we target.  As product managers, we have to understand that a problem has multiple facets.  Just like racetrack owners, breeders, horsemen, trainers have different agenda and interests, so do our customers come with different agenda and interests.  Employees want to have sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose; managers want to ensure they get the maximum values out of employees while delivering on business goals; executive staffs need to make sure they grow the business according to the plan; and CEO needs to make sure the company can deliver value to shareholders and board members.

They could be seen as one goal, but if you look closely each group is looking to maximize their own interest and agenda.  Same is true with most of customers.  They are dealing with internal politics, hidden agenda and more often than not interested in maintaining the status quo.  It's because dealing with known evil is perceived as a better option than preparing for the unknown good.  People are fearful of how the rules may change for the worse from their point of view.

One of the most important thing for product manager to do is understanding this dynamics.  Part of delivering value to customers is making sure the solution gets adopted by users.  Even if you have the most brilliant product, unless you know how to address the internal resistance to your product, your product will not go far.

That is why thinking about the user is so important.  And it is why you want to become your own customer.

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