A fellow product manager, lets call him “Theo”, reached out to me the other day, clearly being at a wits end because he felt that every time he and his team want to innovate they hit an invisible wall. Theo — who works in a business with thousands of people — mentioned how his boss, let’s call her “Angela”, would push back and explain that Theo’s new product idea was not something that was wanted by ‘the business’. This is exactly the kind of scenario which Greg Larkin writes about in “This Might Get Me Fired”.
Larkin is an experienced product person, who’s worked on a wide range of product for a number of large corporate companies. For example, in his book Larkin shares his experiences developing products at Bloomberg and the lessons he learned about being faced with a company’s virtual “Wall of Can’t”.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever faced a virtual “Wall of Can’t”, but you know you’ve come up against one if you hear this:
- “We can’t build this, it feels way too complex”
- “We can’t do this, it’s not what the business wants”
- “We can’t jeopardise the customer experience by trying new features”
- “We can’t do this as it would hurt revenue”
- “We can’t do anything until we’ve first let the consultants shine a light on the market and our competitors”
In his book, Larkin makes an important distinction between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur with respect to breaking through the Wall of Can’t. The entrepreneur, Larkin argues, has one main task; to build a disruptive product. The intrapreneur, in contrast, has two jobs; (1) build a disruptive product and (2) catalyse organisational change. To be successful in both jobs, the intrapreneur needs to build a ‘coalition’ within his or her company. This is where Larkin introduces ‘The Godfather’, who acts as the figurehead of the internal coalition.
Larkin describes the role of The Godfather as “the central engine of stakeholder validation” and as someone who’s “determined to bring the company into the age of modernity”. In the real life example that I mentioned above, Theo might well be barking up the wrong tree; Angela is unlikely to ever be The Godfather. This doesn’t make her a bad professional or colleague; it simply isn’t what she’s about. Instead, “Joseph” — the CMO who used to work for a well known Silicon Valley tech company — is The Godfather whose support Theo needs in order to innovate. Experienced intrapreneurs will know that they stand a lot stronger if they have the backing of The Godfather. With this support, intrapreneurs are in a better position to ‘win’, i.e. solving a problem better and faster than other incumbent solutions. Intrapreneurs swear by user validation to drive change, and will build as quickly as they can in order to learn whether they’ve solved a problem (for instance, Larkin encourages readers to build in no more than eight weeks). These are three common characteristics of the intrapreneur:
- Punk — Willing to break unnecessary rules in a way that emboldens and motivates others.
- Compassion — They’re nice and don’t think that acting like an asshole is the way to get things done.
- Resourcefulness — They use whatever is available to accelerate change.
Finally, Larkin covers the role and value of ‘Guerilla Validation’, which is “essential for conveying a sense of urgency in the enterprise”.
Guerilla Validation enables customers to speak for themselves. Speed is of the essence here. You want to build product or feature quickly and learn from your customers early and often so that you can validate your product thinking and assumptions with customers quickly. The reality check here, as Larkin points out, is that people in big companies are more likely to fight Guerilla Validation, for three reasons:
- They’re afraid of failure;
- They’re afraid of losing power; or
- You’re genuinely wrong.
Main learning point: Next time I speak Theo, I’ll tell him about “This Might Get Me Fired” as I believe this will help him better navigating both the challenges and opportunities that come with innovating in a large corporate environment.