Constantly Growing: A Fictional Fiasco of Business

Constantly Growing

7000x” by Judah & the Lion 🎵

I’ve seen many leaders and a few different cultures – great ones, questionable ones. What I’ve mostly learned is how much the customer matters.

I am perhaps, lucky.

This is especially true to the culture I am in today – I am very lucky. All around me there is a lot of care about what customers think and want. It is a stark reminder of how opposite it is to some of the ones I’ve read about at other companies. My boss shared me an amazing link to a 2013 This American Life episode about “What makes a Fiasco?”. The first story is about a play for Peter Pan gone awry and the 2nd story in it is an entirely made up story about marauding visigoths – the episode is amazing.

Inspired by leadership paradigms and lessons I’ve learned, and that Visigoths story, but not real or even recent events, I wrote a short story about Gavin, a fictional character in Product, and the culture his boss Patrick, a Director at PlatformCom*, supported, unintentionally. Both are good people but both get it wrong, as did other areas of their business, and it causes a fiasco. This example is to amplify why the customer’s voice is always first and everything else is secondary.

I position it as a story of the many perspectives and choices that can contribute to, at the end, what can only be called a Fiasco of business mainly to caution: Listen to the customer first! Always!

“Engineering Has All the Power”

Gavin was a newly hired Sr. Product Manager at an enterprise company called PlatformCom. He was responsible for growing an external facing software engineering business for a monitoring tool.

In that culture, as long as he was able to justify an idea there was an assumption that it would get greenlit. He had that much influence when hired. That bothered some.

“We’re always growing!” was the motto.

Gavin was a funnel for a lot of ideas from other areas of the business, almost none of which were his own. Those he said ‘no’ to perceived ideas he had as his because he was accountable. This drew fire. He was careful. He had a lot of people to negotiate with and whom he respected. They needed his support to get their ask. Gavin had a reputation for being business savvy and fair – he was trusted for his numbers and accurate assessments.

Some ideas were able to be loosely justified and not risky. On their own. “We will build this internal dashboard! Because it’s good for our customers!” Someone wanted more reporting. Somewhere. Always.

It was never the customer asking for more reporting in Gavin’s eyes but he still tried to be a good partner. There was 5x more internal reporting than customers asking for visibility. He would build the dashboards anyway. Because it was loosely justified. And everyone couldn’t hate him. He couldn’t say ‘no’ to everything.

Other ideas from partner areas of the company holding grandiose visions of opportunity were also his responsibility for which to understand. Negotiate. He began to notice these also weren’t from customers or from real users of the products day-to-day. They were from visionaries. Leaders in other orgs didn’t understand what this team he was hired to was working on and thought, “Maybe we can use their resources?” This meant he had to understand the ask from other teams and knew that visibility on what his team was working on was not clear. Suddenly he wasn’t concerned as much about customers as he was about justifying his team’s jobs.

There were of course, hundreds of ideas from the engineers too all across the company and within his own org. He couldn’t justify most of them, but could some of them, and it wasn’t because of his expertise or their skill. He was looking for those worth following at scale. He deeply hoped any of them would align with what enough customers wanted. He worked so hard to ensure they would. He wanted everyone to be happy (but you cannot make everyone happy). In all cases the power of the many and the power of “constant growth” was beginning to consume his strength of influence for business stability and responsibility.

He talked to many customers. Real users. People who already used PlatformCom products hands on keys. He wrote down their perspectives, at times, verbatim, and alongside their business size and projected opportunity.

He tried to get their voice heard in this culture. More often than not if their voice didn’t match an existing idea it was “Go get more customers. We don’t want to build that. This isn’t going to be our customer. Find another.” In this culture ignoring the customer’s real desire until it matched the culture’s desire became the norm, and Gavin knew it. He wasn’t sure how to fix it so he asked his manager, Patrick, and Patrick said:

Engineering has all the power. Let’s just go build things. I’ll fund it.”

Patrick, Gavin’s manager, had almost hired Gavin as an Engineering Manager. They both liked each other alot. But Patrick, the Director, had a problem – he needed business justification for a lot of people very fast. Including, even, Gavin. And this was not the job of an Engineering Manager at PlatformCom, but product.

Patrick’s favoritism towards engineering had unintentionally created in Engineering Managers a distrust of Product Managers for which was never addressed despite him being responsible for both. The issue was avoided. Patrick saw Gavin as a way to fix it while still keeping the peace – Gavin’s background was in engineering and business like his own. Maybe Gavin could solve the culture problems. Maybe his Engineering Managers and engineers would automatically trust Gavin. Patrick wanted to be supportive but in his eyes he thought he could hire through it and avoid speaking about it directly.

Gavin began to lose faith. He tried not to. He had a lot of respect for Patrick and PlatformCom. He didn’t think it would be this bad challenging. He didn’t realize he’d have a culture problem on top of what he thought was at a huge business opportunity when pitched the job and it didn’t seem like there was enough time. Why did it seem like there wasn’t enough time to fix it? How had the company over-hired to build product features for which no customers actually wanted? And how was there so much unjustified noise to just build more?

In an effort to shield the team and the business in tandem, Gavin told his direct peers and closest engineering managers, “We own the problem, not the product.” This messaging created some unification between product and engineering. It resonated. He hoped that would inspire them to focus on the customer instead of seeing customers as a means to justify their own ideas. To trust the business needs. To stop just adding features because they had to or else. To stop keep growing and ask for headcount or else. To take time to listen deeply. Patrick wanted to support all of them. There were days where everyone was on board but there were days where they were not because they had been living in a culture where “Engineering had all the power.” and it felt great for everyone who was engineering and terrible for everyone who was not. It was going to take time.

Patrick trusted Gavin – if Gavin said “Let’s jump!,” Patrick would say “How high?” But he wasn’t always there. Most of the challenges landed with Gavin now. He was now accountable. It looked like things were going to turn around – there were a few who really cared about sustainability, but they still were not customer-first. They still used customers as shields for their own ideas. Gavin was concerned where the broader business was going.

Where PlatformCom was going.

His org needed to build something new and it needed to be valuable. He needed to make sure now that people were starting to get excited, but were still reserved and personally investing in the customer slowly that the operations were still right.

To get perspective on the company, he created P&L forecasts for new lines of business features in their monitoring product based on both a top down and bottoms up approach of 5 years. “What if this goes completely sideways – can this future business line still operate for those who get signed up for it? Can our team?” He cut the revenue in half. It sort of worked albeit not in a way that made it worth it. Then he went through the math. The cost of operations felt off. Gavin wasn’t the person who determined the cost of operations.

It was low.

“Oh well this is just the number we use when we do these kinds of forecasts.” said the forecasting partner team.
“But how could that actually be the operating cost? How can that be the cost of our people?” Gavin said.

He felt like the cost of operations was too nice – it didn’t match what his colleagues were being paid. It felt… old? Gavin wanted to double it, but he couldn’t. “It was the official number.” That’s what everyone said but no one could say why or where it came from. But how could it possibly be right? Gavin tried to explain the number he felt was off to himself in his head. He let it go and did his job. “Maybe some people are just 2x cheaper elsewhere in the company and that’s what makes it all work?” He thought to himself.

Both Gavin and Patrick trusted each other and read the same final forecasts. On paper it was reasonable. It looked sustainable. But they both knew math. And people. And engineering. And business. And reality.

Both had doubts but they didn’t share them with each other. They were informed by different insights.

Simply, Patrick told Gavin that he would be stepping down as Director. The work wouldn’t get funded.

6 Months later many at PlatformCom were laid off in mass layoffs. Some were moved, responsibly, under teams that were careful to hire and cared a lot about exactly what customers wanted.

Gavin joined a new company as an Engineering Manager with a lot of respect for product, sustainable business practices, and approaching innovation by listening deeply first. Not only did people know who their customers were deeply they asked, “Why should we build this feature? What problem of theirs are we trying to solve? Why would they be excited about it?” and those questions came from Engineering who was invested in trying to answer them.

Patrick made a startup and got $5 million in a seed round with a Technical Product Manager as a CTO. He liked to follow exponential continued growth as an opportunity, but he kept a keen eye towards the books and hiring teams. Both knew –

Engineering nor product had all the power.
The customers did.

*PlatformCom is not a real business. Gavin and Patrick are not real people.
Header Image by micheile henderson from Unsplash