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Why Product Super Heroes are Bad for Business.

By Rebecca Dorsay

Being a superhero is firmly established within the language and mythology of product management. But for Julian Connor this isn’t helpful, or even desirable. He thinks that striving to be a superhero can harm product managers and the companies they work for. Instead of being a superhero, he thinks product managers should aspire to be a bit more like wizards, or as he puts it: “A little less like Thor and a little more like Gandalf.”








In his presentation to Leading the Product season pass holders Julian explained:

  • What’s wrong with being ‘super’ and a ‘hero’
  • What makes wizards great product people
  • How Gandalf would drive product-led transformation

What is wrong with product superheroes?

On the surface, being a superhero is seductive. Your superpowers enable you to swoop in and save the day, but this isn’t always a good thing. As Jason says:

“When all you have is Thor’s hammer, every problem can end up looking like a nail.”

If you have a superpower then you usually fall back on it to solve any problem that comes up. This can impede creative problem solving, and the way you understand nuance and complexity – it can stop you coming up with a better solution.

Secondly, superheroes save the day. They are the hero. But in great product-led transformation the customer needs to be at the centre of the story, not the hero. And, great product management is a team effort where all relevant parts of a company work together. A champion team beats a team of champions every time.

Early in Jason’s career he was fascinated by the allure of product management and the star power of product managers. When he got his big break, he doubled down on the skills that got him there – his skills with data and insights, his talent with numbers and metrics. But this meant he focused too much on data, and data-based decisions, neglecting customer insight.

Jason realised that aspiring to be a superhero was holding him back. He thought of a different archetype which was a better fit for product leaders: the wizard.

What makes a wizard a great product leader?

According to Jason, wizards rely on their wits and guile as much as their mystical powers to be successful. Their three key traits are: wisdom, magic and influence.

  • Wisdom is the defining characteristic of a wizard. Wise people often see a path to success that others might miss. When applied to product management, it helps product managers understand the customer – what motivates, delights or frustrates them – and then helps design solutions to improve their lives.
  • You can’t be a wizard without magic. Product managers have magic too – A/B testing, Wizard of Oz experiments, behavioural psychology, gamification and more. While you shouldn’t rely on magic for everything it can improve your products and help shortcut you to success.
  • Wizards achieve more by influencing others to help them. They are often the power behind the throne, acting as a guiding hand in tumultuous times. Product managers achieve great things by convincing others to support the direction they set. They inspire and motivate others and build coalitions of like-minded stakeholders.

Why Gandalf would make a great product manager

If wisdom, magic and influence are the critical foundations that underpin great product managers and great wizards, then who is the role-model to follow? A hermit-like warlock is just as unlikely to achieve greatness as a crotchety product manager who snaps at stakeholders. Gandalf had great impact because he got out in the world and got involved.

  • Gandalf uses ‘quests’ to unite disparate groups of people towards a common goal.
  • He builds relationships and brokers ‘alliances’ to improve chances of success.

Julian thinks that quests and alliances are tools that product managers can use to bring about successful transformations.

The power of quests to drive change

Quests can rally a team or drive action, whether it’s solving a critical customer problem or kick-starting a product-led transformation. Here’s Julian’s four principles for a successful quest.

  1. Be clear what quest you’re on. Do you want to slay a dragon or plunder a hoard? If everyone understands what the goal is, why it’s important and believes they can achieve it then a successful result is much more likely.
  2. Use your advantages. Your team will have some innate advantages: whether they’re people, capabilities, status or support. Use your natural advantages to shortcut your journey.
  3. Take your time. Every quest has unexpected challenges and setbacks. Plan for this by setting small, meaningful goals to build momentum. There’s a long road ahead.
  4. Let everyone by the hero. Is the true hero of the Lord of the Rings Frodo, Sam, Aragorn or Gollum? It’s not Gandalf. But what Gandalf did was create an environment where all quest members had opportunities to be heroes.

Jason shared a story of a product team he joined that had lost its connection with the customer and so lost its way. He helped turn the team around by leading them on a quest to re-centre around the customer. He used logic and emotion to sell the team on the quest’s importance and set bold goals. As the team started talking to customers again they generated great insights which allowed them to fix product problems and build better features. This then generated a steady stream of feedback from their newly engaged customers. As the team found success, they were given greater ownership to set new quests and goals – from ‘Escaping the Dungeons of Tech Debt’ to ‘Liberating Revenue from Dark Mountains’.

Alliances pave the way for change

While quests might help drive the team to achieve great things, alliances pave the way. Jason cited three great tactics to build alliances: craft a story that lands, share knowledge generously and create champions for your ideas.

He discussed these in relation to his time at The Guardian, where it transitioned into a data-driven organisation in the time when publishers around the world were losing millions as print revenue plummeted. The team that led this transition built the Guardian’s internal analytics product ‘Ophan’.

  • The Ophan team shared a story that lands. They lauded data as “exciting and complementary to what you do, not competing with it”. They widely shared interesting data tidbits and insights, crafting a story that elevated the role data played in both popular and important stories.
  • They shared their knowledge and time generously – helping everyone from editors to copywriters understand why stories performed well and how to write better headlines for social or SEO.
  • They knew their own time was one of their greatest constraints, so they trained enthusiastic staff to be their champions showing them how data could drive better decisions. These champions helped spread the word and stop the slide back to the status quo.

So what does this mean for your product-led transformation?

Jason thinks that product managers should stop trying to be superheroes and instead look at how wizards, and particularly Gandalf, achieve greatness. If product-led transformation is your goal, why not make it a quest?

For a successful quest you should use your wisdom and influence, along with a sprinkling of magic, to build a solid foundation. Then forge alliances and rally your team around your goal. All worthwhile quests are long, difficult and often perilous – product-led transformation is no different. But, once you’ve made the first, difficult step on the road you can start to build momentum, then grow in power and, eventually, slay your dragon.

From the Town Hall

After every episode we hold a town hall meeting where members come together to discuss the content of each episode, ask questions, and get help and advice from our product experts. Here are the main takeaways from this town hall.

On onboarding new employees.

In this townhall there was a long discussion on onboarding new employees – a critical time which can influence people’s entire time with you, from how happy they are to how quickly they will make a positive impact. Here’s some ideas to consider:

  • Talk to 25 customers. This gives them a great idea of what customers think of the product, where the pain points are and helps develop a customer-centric mindset right from the start.
  • Explain their role within the company. Not their job description and the company hierarchy, but a clear, direct link between the work they will do on a day-to-day basis and the outcomes that drives for the company at the highest level. Ideally this will also link through to the company vision and/or purpose. So they can see why their work matters.
  • 90-day plan. This helps a new starter be clear on what they’re supposed to achieve often split into 30, 60 and 90 day intervals. There should be a certain amount that the new employee sets themselves, especially the detail of how they will achieve goals and the skills and experience they will draw upon.
  • Plan for the first week. As well as the obvious things like having a computer, access to systems and your employer being ready for you, having your first week set out really starts someone off right. Meetings already booked in their calendar with key team-members and stakeholders, social things to get to know the team better and something that you need to deliver within the first week. Perhaps your 90-day plan, presented to senior stakeholders.

Want to improve your company’s chances of Transformation success by learning how others transformed their companies and teams using Product-Led techniques? The evidence shows that Product-Led organisations yield better financial results.

LTP DIGITAL 2022 is a one-day conference on March 9, 2022 that is all about how to become one of those organisations.