Product Marty Cagan

Thriving in Large Companies

Many of my readers work in large companies, including Adobe, Amazon, AOL, Apple, eBay, Google, Microsoft, PayPal, and Yahoo, and two of the most consistent themes from your questions and comments are: “how do I get things done in a large company?” and “how do I innovate in a large company?” In this issue and the next I want to tackle these two related topics, as I have worked in several large companies, and while it’s not easy, I do believe that those that figure out how to leverage the considerable resources of their company bring a substantial advantage to their product.

For those of you not in a large company, as your company grows, you’ll likely face these issues too. And if you partner with any of these large companies, you are effectively in the same boat, and you’ll get more out of the relationship if you can understand how these companies work.

In this issue I’d like to focus on techniques for getting things done; especially getting the organization behind your product, and getting your product designed, built and launched.

But before we get to the specific techniques, there are two important points to understand:

First, it’s critical to realize that an underlying dynamic in large organizations is that they are generally risk averse. This is not an accident. This is because large companies have much more to lose than smaller companies. It’s one of the biggest cultural changes that comes with success and growth. It’s also why it’s so much easier to innovate in a small company. So first and foremost you need to realize that you will have to deal head-on with the many mechanisms that large companies put in place to protect what they have accumulated. Start by memorizing this paragraph.

Second, in many of these same organizations, they have at least some degree of matrix management and shared resources, where key members of the product team (most often design, engineering, QA, site operations and marketing), are shared resources, and your project needs to secure the necessary people from the pool in order to staff up and create your product. It’s not that this organizational design is particularly effective – it’s just that this model has significant cost savings over project-oriented approaches (where much like a startup, you assemble a dedicated product team for the life of the project).

With these points in mind, here is a list of ten techniques for getting things done in a large company:

1. Learn how decisions are really made in your organization. Every organization is different. The key is to learn and accept how things get done in your organization. Don’t try to change the culture. If you want to succeed in your company, you’ll need to embrace it. Learn to love it. And be sure you look closely. Despite any formal decision processes that may exist, don’t be surprised if your company requires one key person (or a few) to buy off on any significant decision. If this is the case, at least you know who you really need to convince, and then you can work on the best way to reach that person. And you’ll need to learn how that person makes decisions; for example, does he base his decisions on a demo, or market data, or on customer commitments and testimonials?

2. Build relationships before you need them. If you want to go it alone, you might want to consider a startup, as large companies are all about people working with and depending on each other. You need to figure out all the people across the company that you might have to depend on to get your product designed, built and launched. It’ll probably be a long list. But well before you need the help of these people, you should introduce yourself, ask how you can best work with them, and start getting them excited about what you’re working on. Try to figure out if there’s anything you can do to help them in their job. Make friends.

3. Long live skunk works. It really is easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, especially in larger companies (see the point above about risk aversion). If you have a product idea, you can create a PowerPoint presentation and propose it through the proper channels, but it’s all too likely that the idea won’t go anywhere. However, if you take that idea, along with a few like-minded friends from across the company, and you flesh the idea out into a prototype, then if the idea is a good one, you’ll be stunned at how quickly the resources of the company will line up to help. Countless great products were launched this way. More on this point in the next article on innovation, but for now, know that your idea will have a much better chance of getting traction if you can actually show the idea works, rather than just talk about the idea.

4. Be willing to do whatever it takes. One of the great ironies of large companies is that even though there may be thousands of employees, it can often be impossible to get someone to help when you need them. Even when management is very willing and supportive, there may be no suitable resources available. In this case, you may need to get creative. You might be able to find some funding for a contractor, or call in some favors, or you might have to pitch in yourself. With a large company with formal processes and deliverables required, it may very well be easier to step in and perform the task or create the deliverable yourself rather than fight the process. I know of many cases where the product manager needed to help out with deliverables for customer support, sales training, technical writing, QA, engineering, and marketing. You may need to just do it.

5. Pick your battles. The most effective people in a large organization have far more friends than enemies. Getting things done in a big company isn’t easy, and there will be many situations where you’ll have good reason to be frustrated, but you need to pick your battles carefully. Make sure you pick something worth fighting for, where the outcome truly matters. And when you do fight, make sure you’re fighting for your product and not against another person. Try to bring the company along with you and not back your adversaries into a corner. You don’t want to win the battle only to lose the war.

6. Build consensus before important meetings where decisions are required. Always keep in mind than once someone opposes your position in a broad and public way, you have a major problem. It will not be easy for that person to publicly switch positions. In the long run, it takes much less time to build consensus beforehand when the outcome is important. In a large company, the main value of these decision meetings is for everyone to see everyone else in the same room indicate their support for your product or decision. So make sure that before any big meeting (or before sending out an important e-mail), talk one on one with each person to make sure they have a chance to privately voice any concerns to you, and that you have adequately addressed their concerns, and that they are now on board and are willing to indicate this publicly.

7. Be smart about how you spend your time. It is all too easy in a big company to get sucked into a week full of non-stop meetings. At the end of the week, you will have rushed from meeting to meeting, and stayed up late just trying to keep up with your e-mail, but you will have not actually done the things that will make a real difference to your product. Make sure you triage your meetings ruthlessly. Attend the meetings you must, but get used to trusting your colleagues to do their jobs and know that they’ll let you know if something really needs your attention. Most importantly, make sure you have the time during the week to work on the items crucial to the success of your product: your product strategy, your roadmap, the current prototype of the next release, your understanding of the competition, and especially talking to actual users and customers.

8. Share information. Communication is a hard in any organization. In a large company, communication is a serious challenge, and information becomes like a currency. Unfortunately, many people treat it like currency and hoard it rather than sharing it freely. Don’t take the view that information is power. You have more to gain by sharing, and hopefully others will reciprocate and help keep you informed as well. So anything you can do to help your colleagues by providing useful information as soon as you get it is good for you and good for your company.

9. Put your manager to work. In a large company, your manager can make a big difference to your success. Assuming your manager is reasonably well regarded, you should leverage his or her relationships, and use your manager to get a better understanding of the company and your management chain. Make it easy for your manager by doing your homework and providing the information he or she needs to make your case to others. Make sure your manager knows he or she can trust you talking to all levels of the organization.

10. Evangelize! In a large company, the need to evangelize never stops. You need to continuously spread the word, explain the vision and strategy, demo the prototype, and share customer feedback. Don’t underestimate the importance of this internal sales function. Make sure everyone even remotely connected with your product understands why the product is important, and how they can help.

While it is undeniably hard to overcome the internal obstacles and get the considerable resources of a large company focused on your product, the benefits can be tremendous. You will get a level of attention from the press, industry analysts, partners, customers and users that the small company couldn’t buy at any price. So it definitely pays for you to learn how to use the assets of your company to the fullest.

A special thanks to David Weiden for his contributions to the above list. David is now a VC with Khosla Ventures, but I know him as an exceptional product management mind, and one of the best at successfully navigating large organizations. A great closing quote from David, which I think sums up nicely the situation and opportunity for many people in large companies: “Most people wander around in the dark and bitch about it being dark, instead of learning where the light switches are.”