“And yet it Moves” – Market Timing Lessons from Galileo

Galileo Galilei stood before the Roman Inquisition in 1633 to defend his controversial theory of heliocentrism. Galileo was accused of heresy because he believed, based on his methodical observations (and application of the scientific method) of heavenly bodies, that the Earth orbited around the Sun. Known to be true today, Galileo’s views were completely contrary to the two main pillars of society at the time: Aristotelian philosophy and the Catholic Church. From Aristotle’s perspective on the ground, the Sun, Moon, and stars traveled across the sky – orbiting the Earth. The Bible also gave clear instructions: the Earth was fixed at the center of the universe and did not move. Galileo observed evidence to the contrary.

Through a telescope, a device he perfected, Galileo discovered and tracked the movement of four moons orbiting Jupiter (now named the Galilean moons in his honor). This was proof that there were heavenly bodies orbiting another object besides the Earth – man, therefore, was not at the center of the universe.

Galileo attempted to sell his innovative explanation for man’s place in the universe by translating his observations into a theory easily understood by those that influenced social policy in 17th century Europe – the clergy – in a similar fashion that a Product Owner (PO) communicates business requirements to a development team in a technology company. Most organizations call themselves technology companies these days – more people than ever occupy the PO role and uncover unmet user/market needs, then translate these needs to an engineering team in an easy-to-understand format called user stories. While this methodology is essential to the short term success of a product, there is another component missing.

The Product Manager (PM) must blend the user/business insight and clarity of language that is integral to the PO role with an understanding of the wider market context to shepherd a product toward sustained success. The PM goes one level deeper to understand the current market forces and future trends so that the right product is delivered at the right time. Put simply, a PO solves currently unmet needs while a PM builds a scalable product to solve needs today and in tomorrow’s market. Indeed, timing is everything.

Galileo’s theory was proven correct, but his timing was poor: the Catholic Church was locked in conflict as the Thirty Years’ War (actually a series of wars born from the Protestant Reformation which pitted Catholics against Protestants) raged throughout Europe and heliocentrism threatened the very foundation of Catholicism. Galileo was acting like a PO as he sought to explain the universe without regard for the wider context – the Catholic Church was in no position to entertain a theory that, if true, would totally refute a major tenant of Holy Scripture at a time when the Church was under siege (literally and figuratively). Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and his writings were banned for a century.

Of course, Galileo’s failed presentation of evidence for heliocentrism isn’t the only example of an innovative idea that was launched prematurely and without regard for the wider market context.

Makers of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) correctly identified unmet needs – people in the early 1990s wanted to bring the functionality of a personal computer (contact lists, calendars, word processing, email, etc.) with them as they lived their lives. Advances in computing power enabled companies like Palm and Research in Motion to build products that met needs in the short term. One man, however, saw where the market was headed in the future and built a solution to meet it.

Steve Jobs is now revered for his apparent foresight in guiding Apple to the almost mythical status it enjoys today. Sure, Jobs was a visionary who could inspire people to achieve greatness. But, he also acted like any good PM to understand how unmet needs today should also translate to a scalable solution in the market tomorrow. Jobs recognized that as more people bought and used PDAs they would not only expect more functionality from the devices, PDA users would also want greater connectivity to do more with these increasingly powerful hand-held computers. He knew he needed a large wireless carrier partner to maintain both a cellular and data network that could support the growing market opportunity for the so-called ‘smartphone.’ So, Jobs negotiated a revenue sharing deal with AT&T and the rest, as they say, is history.

Jobs understood current unmet needs in the PDA space, correctly identified larger market trends, built the necessary ecosystem to address those trends, and delivered the iPhone at the right time. Galileo knew his theory of heliocentrism (based on his scientifically-sound observations) was correct but failed to account for the wider context of the challenges facing his most important market – the Catholic Church; Galileo lived out the rest of his days under house arrest.

The Product Owner role is essential for translating unmet needs into solutions today, but the best Product Managers go a step further to ensure products find scalable success in his or her lifetime.

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.

Platoon Leaders as Product Managers – Why the Allies Won the Battle for Normandy

Omaha beach - photo by author

It was one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled in human history. 175,000 fighting men, 50,000 vehicles, 5,333 ships, and 11,000 aircraft were prepared to deal the decisive blow to Adolf Hitler in the European Theater during World War Two. The mission was called Operation Overlord and its success would alter the course of history for decades (for more on the historical significance of the moment, check out Stephen E. Ambrose’s comprehensive book D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II).

Hollywood has done a great job over the years immortalizing the battle. But the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe on June 6th, 1944 should have failed. Fortunately, the Allies had prepared their military leaders to act like product managers.

As early as November 3rd, 1943 Hitler knew an Allied invasion was imminent along the German-occupied French coast and, if the invasion was successful, would pose a serious threat to the Nazi Reich. So he put one of Germany’s greatest generals, Field Marshall Eriwn Rommel, in command of the defenses. Rommel quickly realized that Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall was nothing more than incomplete fortifications manned mostly by Slavic prisoners pressed into German service against their will. Rommel (who earned the nickname ‘Desert Fox’ while out-maneuvering the British in North Africa) understood that any Allied landing had to be defeated on the beaches – he implemented many of the dangerous hazards American, British, and Canadian troops would encounter on D-Day.  More important than the static fortifications, however, was Rommel’s plan to overwhelm any invasion force with tanks.

Rommel wanted the seven Panzer divisions in the Normandy theater (approximately 70,000 soldiers and hundreds of tanks) placed directly behind the beaches so they could respond swiftly to any landing attempted along the coast. But, even though Rommel had the most direct knowledge of conditions on the ground and experience in maneuver warfare, the German high command overruled his plan and placed many of the German troops much further inland – it would take three days for reinforcements to reach the battlefield. This pattern of top-down decision-making would seal the Nazi’s fate.

Allied military leadership, in contrast, empowered the lowest level leaders (lieutenants commanding platoons of 40 to 50 soldiers) to make critical battlefield decisions without seeking higher approval. To borrow from Jim Collins’s business management ideas, the Allied military strategy centered on getting the right people “on the bus” first so that they could best respond to changing conditions on the ground rapidly.

This idea of building a framework around sound decision-making in stressful situations with incomplete information is very similar to how a good product manager must operate. A product manager is responsible for the success of a product but she can’t be everywhere at the same time – in any given day, a PM could be engaged by conversations with customers about a prototype, discussions with sales and marketing teams about the validity of a new feature in the market, tweaking user experience elements with designers based on feedback, refining product requirements with the development team, ruthlessly prioritizing product requests, or selling internal executives on why a particular long-term vision for a product offering is worth investing in. Suffice it to say, there simply isn’t time to micromanage every detail.

A successful product manager must organize all of these moving parts around a unifying framework. Yes, an effective product leader must establish a compelling vision. But when it comes to actually getting work done, the product manager cannot become a bottleneck and must delegate decisions to other team members. When every team understands the desired outcome, the product manager doesn’t need to be available at all hours of every day to shepherd a product toward success.

In the same vein, all Allied platoon leaders knew every objective they needed to secure on D-Day. When the battlefield devolved into chaos, the Allied platoon leaders didn’t need to check with higher command – they adjusted to changing conditions on the fly and made good decisions.

For example, D-Day began the night before the beach landings when 13,000 Allied paratroopers expected to parachute into clearly-defined landing zones near their objectives (like strategic towns and bridges). Instead, they ended up scattered all across the Normandy coast – individual platoon leaders had to step up and organize ad-hoc units to successfully capture objectives, ensuring the troops coming ashore on the beaches could establish a beachhead.

The Germans, in contrast, had to wait for approval from senior leadership to organize a counterattack. In fact, any strategic military decision during the war had to pass through Hitler, and no one wanted to wake him on the night of the invasion. Worse, the commander who could have mounted an effective counterattack wasn’t available – Rommel went home to celebrate his wife’s birthday on June 5th.

The German centralized command structure severely hindered their ability to respond to the Allied invasion in real-time. Despite Rommel’s sound defensive plan, he wasn’t there to implement it; even if Rommel was present on the battlefield, he was not empowered to adapt the strategy as conditions changed. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander of the invasion, understood the tactical edge his platoon leaders had over their German counterparts when he remarked: “[i]n preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – when the situation on the battlefield changed, Allied platoon leaders adapted their plans; the Germans waited for approval to launch an already obsolete counterattack strategy.

Allied platoon leaders were crystal-clear about their missions and were empowered to achieve them through whatever means were necessary. Effective product managers know how to define clear objectives for their teams, resulting in sound decisions even when they aren’t present. It should come as no surprise that a successful product will deviate from an early roadmap plan – conditions on the ground are always evolving.

Photo by author

Adam F. Caplan is the product leader at a rapidly growing digital healthcare IT company.