“The times they are a-changin'”, as Bob Dylan put it and that’s more true than ever today. Software is eating the world. Every firm is a software company now, whether they understand it or not. We’re in what Steve Denning calls the creative economy, driven by customers with an infinite amount of information at their disposal.
In these times of upheaval you might guess that many companies are going through major internal reflection and restructuring. The general answer is sadly, no. Many companies are still by-and-large acting like product pushers to the ignorant masses. Almost every traditional company is still leaning on tenets of management created in the 1800s. Radical changes are far and few apart. As a result of this fundamental inability to adapt, the life expectancy of firms have dropped significantly, now less than fifteen years and declining rapidly (Fortune 500 companies).
I think it’s fair to say that many existing organisations are in desperate need for major redesign, not just structurally but dynamically, how they work to create value. Nothing happens. It seems to me that CEOs opt for a safe tactic, maintaining the system instead of fundamentally changing it. CEOs are playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Now this made me curious. I mean, why is that? I mean, are they idiots or just incompetent? Hardly. Perhaps some other forces are at play?
The Pledge of the Sheriff
In the movie The Pledge (2001), directed by Sean Penn, a weary police chief, played by Jack Nicholson, investigates the murder of a young child. In the pivotal scene, on the day of his retirement, he promises the mother of the murdered girl to find the killer.
The sheriff gradually goes to extremes to fulfil his promise. He dedicates all his time to the case. He moves to a small town in the mountains, where he suspects the murderer could be found. The pledge he made propels him to forsake everything else. His mental health starts to decay. The guilt and shame of the unfulfilled promise lie heavily on his shoulders.
This movie reveals how incredibly powerful a promise can be, even today. Human beings can become very preoccupied in their quest to fulfil a promise.
Is this your idea of a manager?
We’ve all seen them; the crappy managers. Those who seem to care mostly about themselves and not particularly for their employees. But this is not about them. Most managers I have met care a lot. Which is great. Until it isn’t.
You can care too much, you see. Or perhaps better put, care in the wrong way.
As an employee it’s quite easy to become cynical about the role your company takes in society. Most companies seem to focus on making money within the legal limits – not minding ethics, even less being a positive force in society. One example is the recent TeliaSonera leadership meltdown in Uzbekistan, where management defended from allegations of bribery by claiming to follow local legislation. That’s far from enough today for a major company. In a transparent world, you have to do what’s right, not just what’s legal.
More and more people think it’s important how their suppliers, and by extension their own company, behaves but very few have the power to influence that behaviour. This incongruence creates a feeling of unease, or even resentment. You want to be able to proudly present your company – not excuses.
Leading a product development endeavour can be enormously rewarding, but it is also one of the most uncertain journeys you can undertake. Leadership is complex and product leadership is no exception. Product leaders need something to hold on to, a mental model of sorts. This article presents some things I would cling to if I were a captain of the seas.
To Boldly Go…
One perspective on leading is that it is like convincing a group of people to go places where they have never been. It could even be the case that nobody has been there before.
In order to do this the following conditions are really useful:
- a clear idea of where you going
- a general plot on how to get there, the routes you will take
- a fairly accurate way of determining where you are
- an unstoppable determination to arrive