Product Marty Cagan

The Smartest Person in the Room

As product people, we’re first and foremost in the idea business. We have to come up with great ideas and then make them a reality. While this takes skill and practice, the main ingredient is something that I don’t know how to teach. We depend on smart people for the smart ideas. Sometimes these ideas come from ourselves, but if we depend only on ourselves for the smart ideas, we’re severely limiting our potential.

Probably the single most important lesson I’ve learned in the product business is to start by seeking out the smartest people in the company. I’ve found that every organization has at least some very smart people, and these people may hold the key to unlocking your company’s potential, if you can just find them. They’re not always where you’d guess, and sometimes in fact they’re even being hidden from you. I never cease to be amazed though at how petty office politics, ego, xenophobia and insecurity can get in the way of something so potentially beneficial for a company.

When you do find these people, you can use them any number of ways. I like to consider these people “deputy product managers” and sometimes I even give them public recognition as such, and often I’ll recruit these people to come join the product team.

To illustrate the many different corners of your company that may be hiding these people, let me give you some of my favorite examples from my career. I promise you that every one of these examples is based on a real person, but I have changed their names.

– It took me longer to find Sam than it should have because his manager was actively bad-mouthing him. However, it quickly became clear that it was the manager that was clueless, and what was really going on was that the manager was insecure and intimidated by Sam’s mind. So not only had Sam not been recognized and utilized, he had actually been demoted! Today, the manager is history and Sam is one of the best product leaders I know.

– I met Chris when I was out assisting on a customer visit with a Fortune 100 technology team, and our sales people were making little sense when they were trying to describe to us the local considerations. Finally, an SE (systems engineer – they provide technical assistance to the sales staff) stepped in a did an outstanding job articulating what the situation was. I could see the respect that the customer had for the SE, and afterwards I invited him to grab a beer. It was soon very clear to me that I was sitting with an extremely talented person. I asked him why he was hiding in the Midwest as an SE, and he explained he had family in the area, that he had never thought of living elsewhere, and that he had taken the best job he could find. I immediately began to use Chris as a sounding board and source of product ideas, and while it took a while, I finally got him to relocate and today he’s a general manager. While engineers often have great insight into the available technologies, people from the field often have great insight into customer needs.

– As is so often the case, I found Alex deep in the ranks of the engineering staff. He was shy and introverted, and not especially ambitious. But the Alex was incredibly smart. He not only knew technologies extremely well, but he gravitated to our customers, understood the broader technology trends, and he was a constant champion of the user experience. He’s one of those people that is a great engineer, and people assumed that that represented his potential. However, Alex had an equally talented product mind. One of those rare people great at just about everything. He never made the move to product, but he did become one of the thought leaders in the company and was consulted on virtually every product decision, and the product was much better for it.

– I wish this was not the case, but I do believe there remain many forms of discrimination in business, even in high-tech. But one that I had thought would have been gone by now is discriminating due to youth. Matt is probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever worked with. He graduated college before he was old enough to drive, and he never slowed down. But when I met Matt he was dramatically underutilized because his manager couldn’t imagine giving someone so young that much responsibility. Big mistake. Matt jumped ship and went on to found a startup that has improved the lives of millions.

– Hecha had it twice as tough. She was female and Indian. In this loud, heavily male, technology-driven industry, women are easily overlooked. And culturally, Indian’s are often quiet and reluctant to challenge authority, their managers or their colleagues. But Hecha was easily the smartest person in the room, and it didn’t take long to draw her out of her shell and for her to establish herself as the product leader she was meant to be. I’ve seen this with Chinese nationals as well. Don’t let cultural norms or an accent through you off – these may be the product minds you’re searching for.

– I’ve also found that sometimes the greatest product minds are right there in front of you. You may be at a company that’s enjoyed some success, and the product mind that got you there is now CEO or chairman of the board, and seemingly unreachable to today’s product team. If the founder is good, he’s probably trying not to step in and micro-manage things himself, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not very willing to help. If you’re lucky enough to have great product people as founders, you should initiate a channel with them and invite their feedback and suggestions on your product plans. They typically are all too happy to do so, and you should absolutely find a way to utilize that resource.

The bottom line is that these minds can be hidden anywhere – engineering, sales, customer service, professional services, or the exec team. It is your job to find them. How do you do that?

– Ask! You’ll be surprised if you ask at all levels of the company who people think are the really great minds.

– MBWA. From the HP Way, “Management By Wandering Around.” It is easy and it works.

– Listen to the dialog in meetings and conversations.