Image by Bohman via Flickr
Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to sit in on a quarterly meeting of some of the hardest working folks I know. My company calls them Product Planners. The difficulty of what they do is hidden by the simplicity of their title…if you’ve never worked in an enterprise that is tracking released products, fixing them as needed, and then planning new ones with the added uncertainty of forecasting their popularity, then you aren’t aware of the tricky dance these folks do. Years ago while watching one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies, I remember Crow T. Robot remarking, upon seeing a credit for someone tasked with Planning, “Oh, that’s what I want to do….I’ve always wanted to Plaaaaaan!”
I thought it was a bit odd too, at the time. Now I know better.
When I first started in my current business group, it was as a Product Planner. I wasn’t entirely clear on what that meant at the time, but the hiring manager was willing to take a chance on me, based upon my record elsewhere. I had a couple of great mentors once I came on board, but I remember asking my manager if there was any supplementary training I could look into to hone my skills more quickly. Apparently there wasn’t, so I just dug in and learned the old-fashioned way: I made a lot of mistakes, learned from them and spent as much time as I could with particularly talented planners on my team. And I planned…..
One of the stranger aspects of the job for me was forecasting the growth, popularity and sales of new products, but basing it all on previous products. Sometimes that looked like it might work, but there were several other times when we were planning on a significantly different kind of product. I really didn’t get how we could predict (that’s really what forecasting seemed like to me….I always used to associate the word “forecast” with the weather, and suspected the likelihood of correct outcomes were about the same…) the future of the product correctly. Yet the pressure was on to not only arrive at “solid forecasts”, but back them up with enormous amounts of data.
Seriously….how do you do that?
How do you come up with solid, reliable, “bet-your-job” data on something that hasn’t happened yet, and over which you have almost no control? I feel like I never really understood that. There were others in my team who would stand before the larger business group decision makers and go through their data-filled presentations. They were confident. Occasionally they were even close to what eventually happened. The years would prove them, one way or the other….that’s why they spent so much time on revised forecasts. The revisions take place as the future becomes the present and you find out how much the customers really like your product.
I’ve quoted Ricardo Semler before on this blog and one of his quotes that is on my white-board is, “Nothing is as different as two of the same mistakes.” Perhaps the opposite is something to consider: Nothing is as different as two of the same successes. I have taken his quote to mean that something that proved to be a mistake at an earlier time and in a different context may not be a mistake at a different time, in a different context. So, just because Product One was successful, there is no guarantee that Product Two will be, even if it is almost exactly the same. If there is any truth in that, how in the world can someone possibly forecast its success accurately?! Or perhaps I’m just confused…..
Regardless of this, my regard for those folks who are tasked with this part of the product cycle have my respect and appreciation, even as I wonder what kind of crystal ball they use for their work.