Tech businesses need Product Prophets, not Product Managers

Summary : If you approach product development as a task of managing you invariably introduce products that were in demand last year. It is a basic error to have product managers in technology businesses. Product managers manage what is. They don’t see what will be, that’s the job of a product prophet...

If you approach product development as a task of managing you invariably introduce products that were in demand last year. It is a basic error to have product managers in technology businesses. Product managers manage what is. They don’t see what will be, that’s the job of a product prophet. A prophet is someone who is gifted with greater insight than others, enabling them to predict the future. The reason why this distinction is important is because technology markets are always on the move. The characteristics of today’s market that generate the greatest revenues are characteristics that will be less important by the time you get to market.

When you ask customers what they need in the future, they will tell you what they think they need based on today’s needs. Or as Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This is why classical marketing approaches of surveys and focus groups fail.

 Product Managment vs Prophet

How do you identify a product prophet? The most famous product prophet of modern times is Steve Jobs, so I can highly recommend reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of him. But there are plenty more out there. Akio Morita, who built Sony, is another. You can also find plenty in our own industry. Gordon Moore, who laid out Intel’s strategy, is a good one. More closer to home are Martin van den Brink of ASML; Sass Somekh at Applied Materials and Ken Levy at KLA in the nineties; or Bill Tobey at GCA in the seventies. What is unique about all these individuals and others like them is that they: 1) have an understanding of where the market will be in the future that others don’t, 2) are incredibly stubborn and persistent to a degree that others will see them as difficult, 3) are able to communicate their vision to customers in a way that results in fast adoption, and 4) have a track record of repeating their successes over and over where others consistently fail.

The problem with finding product prophets is that there are plenty of false ones. So whenever you find them, hang on to them. If you don’t have one, you should be looking. Another problem with prophets is that big organizations often kill them off. The fact that they often are gifted with greater insight than others makes them easy victims of consensus decision-making. If they are not in a CEO position, they need protective leadership that has faith in their ability. One final problem worth mentioning is that when they go off, they go off badly. Even though they have a track record, every new venture always carries a risk of failure. Their understanding of where the market is going will fail if they lose sight of customer problems, needs, and benefits.  

By G Dan Hutcheson                                     Copyright © All rights reserved.

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