We’re not a factory

Old factory workers

Factories must be awfully dull places. Factory workers working on a production line follow a strict process. Work is divided out into narrow and highly controlled portions. The guy working at machine #1 is an expert at machine #1, but not at machine #2 or #3. But that’s ok; if he stays focussed on his machine, the production line moves on and many widgets will roll off the end.

Factory workers take a given process or specification and assemble it. That the solution is provided is a given. There’s no room for initiative or individual innovation on the factory floor. If one machine doesn’t produce output of exactly the right type at exactly the right time, the system breaks down. Process improvement and innovation is for senior managers; observing the factory floor below from an air-conditioned room behind a wall
of glass.

In the early 1800s the factory revolutionised the production of goods and heralded the onset of the industrial era. It raised millions of people from poverty and created countless jobs (and millionaires). It brought about a new kind of competition: one fought along the bottom line. The problem with the factory is that the race to the bottom is over: we hit it long ago. When every factory can produce widgets as cheaply as you can (or cheaper), your ability to differentiate lies elsewhere – it’s not enough just to be able to sell widgets cheaper than anyone else.

Luckily in the software product business we’re not factory workers. We encourage individual initative. We challenge our teams to help us improve our processes. We believe that innovation can (and should) come from anywhere.

Right?

If that’s true, why do we keep treating our teams like factories, and our people like factory workers? Why do companies push solutions to teams and expect them to be just assembled, (where possible by yesterday), without asking too many questions or making a fuss? Why do organisations rebuff any innovation or ideas that don’t come from their own team? Why do we incentivise teams and individuals on the quantity of output, and not the quality or impact?

It’s not enough to talk about supporting innovation and encouraging initiative‚Ķ our daily working process has to support it too; otherwise, we’re just another factory.

It’s ok to be second

Facebook was not the first social network. As early as the first dot com boom in the late 1990s companies like sixdegrees.com had launched with services similar in theme and purpose to what Facebook became. When Facebook launched in 2004 from a dorm room at Harvard there were already a number of competing products: Friendster and Orkut were already successful online social networks, and mySpace already had millions of users. In fact, MySpace continued to be the largest social network in the world until 2008 when Facebook finally overtook it.

The iPad was not the first tablet, nor was the iPod the first portable MP3 music player. Google wasn’t even the first web search engine.

What Facebook, the iPad and countless other products like them did was take something that had been done before, and did it better.

Facebook took the concept of online social networking, and added real meaning: your real identity, your real-life friends, and a completely new (and naturally addictive) way to share your life with your network. (It also managed to solve the hardware scaling problems that had hamstrung competition like Friendster).

The iPad took the long sought-after but elusive tablet computer and built a beautiful, functional and elegant device that refused to compromise. A device that rejected the assumption that a tablet was a normal PC with a touch-screen, and had the courage to create a whole new form factor.

The point is: it’s okay to be second. Or even third. New product opportunities often lie in re-thinking existing concepts or products: it’s about seeing what can be done better, and having the courage to take the next steps the others won’t.

Steve Jobs one famously quoted Picasso when he said: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Classic product management wisdom from one of the fathers of industrial design

In 1955 Henry Dreyfuss, one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, in his book “Designing for People” wrote the following :

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Clearly this sentiment is as relevant for designers today as it was 55 years ago when it was written. It’s also interesting how the description rings true for product managers. In fact, I couldn’t have come up with a better description of the modern-day product manager if I tried.

Product management is more than schedules, roadmaps and powerpoints. Product management is about identifying a need and building a solution. It’s about understanding people (users) and understanding “how things are made”.

Designing for People - Henry Dreyfuss - Many hats sketch“From the book Designing for People – Dreyfuss’s sketch of the multi-skilled designer.