Poke the Box… Product Management

Well, the hiatus is over. While some of you may have recognized that I haven’t blogged in a while and Twitters performance improved without @jim_holland in your face, I’ve been listening, learning and watching the product management and product marketing community at large.

One of the things I’ve learned, is there’s a few of us out there that like to “Poke the Box.” If you haven’t read Seth Godin’s latest rant, I challenge you, like Seth, to pick up a copy and read it.

While on a recent trip, I attended and participated in the Minnesota Product Camp. I spent some time with Barry and Jennifer Doctor while in town and I stole (asked permission to read) a copy of Poke the Box.

It’s a great challenge, rant and manifesto meant for product management and those innovating. So what is poke the box? It’s about producing something that’s scare.

The concept originates from a buzzer box built by Seth’s uncle. It was metal, had lights and switches and begged to be poked and messed with by his young cousin. Seth confides, “Life is a buzzer box. Poke it.”

As I read and absorbed, here’s what I heard and thought.

The Initiator – Product management and innovators at large have to be the initiator and instigator. We know that if you’re not, someone else in your organization is. It may be a group that has clout like sales or an executive. Do you want some other group that has less market awareness and understanding to initiate something new? Are you the initiator in your organization or the person waiting for permission to move forward? As Seth describes, “We can’t wait for initiative to be handed to you, take it.” How does an initiator get started? Seth shares, “Excellence isn’t about working hard, it’s about initiative and deciding what’s worth doing.” Who’s better qualified than product professionals to decide what’s worth doing? Are you initiating or is your organization holding you back? Take Seth’s advice if the organization is the issue: “1) Ignore the book (for now) or 2) Start looking for a new gig. ASAP!”

If it’s not your organization, then what’s the problem?

Product Manager or Product Starter – Recently at PCampMN, John Mansour from Proficientz said, “Product management is not a factory, but you could be outsourced.” I’m sure you’re thinking, “Now hold on John!” Well it’s true and I agree. If you are managing products and not starting products, then you may be outsourced or replaced.

Product starters are the ones that poke the box. “Innovation is mysterious and inspiration is largely unpredictable” explains Seth. Most people think innovation is hard. It’s not. “While there are ideas all around us, we have to replace the fear of failure or rejection and replace it with initiative, innovation and starting. Along with starting comes, finishing.” This includes expressing a roadmap, articulating it, believing it can happen and have some passion about it as you share it. There’s some great post on releases, roadmaps and vision and product managers and innovation by Saeed Khan and Scott Sehlhorst respectively.

Poking the Box – means action. It means that you must “insist, push, create, cajole and launch” and  ask why in internal conversations, and get out of your seat and the office and get face-to-face with customers and others in markets that have the experience or can support the poking process. Using your product starting skills, you will discover, validate, refine and often park ideas. While discovery and validation are the actions that come from any insight and decisions, don’t get caught up in the “never ending” cycle of “have I discovered and validated enough?” It’s a product management trap and will consume your time, energy and damage your credibility if it lingers without a purpose. Once you begin poking the box, set goals, targets for when you’ll start, end and decide or not. “Poking requires tact. Without a why, without an explanation, it’s hard to give ideas the momentum they need to spread” comments Godin.

Product Starting – is a way of life in product management but won’t start without you. Why? You are the starter, owner and finisher. Without your guidance, innovation languishes or starves from lack of leadership. Why does innovation get stuck? Godin confides, “One reason organizations get stuck is that they stick with their A players so long that they lose their bench.”

If you lead product management, are you developing all your talent and utilizing everyone on the bench? Do you spend time expanding the team’s talents or limiting them? Do you use mentors to strengthen and grow your bench? If not, why?

If you’re in product management, are you the “A” player” thought of most often as someone who starts new products along with managing the ones you have? If not, what do you lack that keeps you from starting? Do you sit on the bench hoping the team wins for you or do you get involved and get some valuable playing time and experience?

A number of years ago, I was talking with another product manager about a new product he was leading. I recognized this product would satisfy a series of newly discovered problems in the market at that time if it was coupled with some existing products and we could use some technology from a partner. How did I know that? I had my innovation radar enabled and was willing to ask questions, go beyond my normal boundaries and willing to incite thoughts and actions to innovate a new solution.

As I think about Poke the Box, I recognize that to some extent, Seth is poking at us. Product management has to consistently poke, experiment and experience things to produce something scare. What’s scare? It’s not a lack of ideas, it’s a lack of leadership and capabilities to “insist, push, create, cajole and launch.” How will you begin to poke the box? It happens with forward motion.

Thanks to Seth Godin for keeping it real and dishing out some for product professionals. I’d like to hear your ideas and what you do to innovate and start products. Please feel free to comment and share this via Twitter or LinkedIn. Poke the Box – Product Management: a new post by @jim_holland http://wp.me/pqeWU-md #prodmgmt #leadership

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Giles Farrow  On November 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

    The main problem I hear from product managers is that they spend far too much on busy work, day-to-day meetings and can’t stand back, inspire, innovate and lead.

    They would love to, it’s their favourite pat of the role, but they can never find time

    • The Product Management Tribe  On December 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      Giles – Thanks for the comments. I agree 100%. Busy work doesn’t make good product management. It’s makes for unclear direction, communication and often a decrease in credibility. Balancing the day-to-day is not easy. How do you management this?

  • prdmkgblackbelt  On November 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Love it! Your time away has produced a great read, lots and loads to think about as well.

    Continuous curiosity aka “poking” is important, none will say nay to that, we’re all innovators of a sort. Yet, I think the last half of your article is as much, if not more important to product professionals; I am talking about the A team and leaders forgetting to work their bench.

    In biz as in sports, it’s all about winning, so this happens; mainly to mitigate risk and an attempt to increase success rates. I don’t like it any more than you do. And it may not matter if a B+ player aims to be A, they’ve been tagged and it’s hard to overcome the stigma. That’s the job we do. I’ve managed many teams and had to be sure everyone had their chance to be “on pointe” – very few disappointments (in their performance) – a great deal in mine (for not seeing it sooner). Lessons learned and I’m glad you’re the guy who gets to remind us all that people (our teams) are the greatest asset we mentor.


    • The Product Management Tribe  On December 5, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks for the comments and feedback. I need to continue the innovation theme and product management and product marketing.

  • Stewart Rogers  On November 29, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    This was the strongest question on the page…

    “Do you use mentors to strengthen and grow your bench?”

    • The Product Management Tribe  On December 5, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      The next question is, “If not, why?” Those leading product professionals have to be product starters or finishers of their own. How do you know if you have the right person aligned with the right product or area of the portfolio, if you’re not mentoring and growing your bench.

      Thanks for the comments!

  • Michael Ray Hopkin  On December 2, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Nice post Jim. I love the idea of product starter vs. product manager. You always need to be looking out for new opportunities and better options for your products. You can’t stand still or you’ll get run over big-time.

    Glad your back my friend.


    • The Product Management Tribe  On December 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      Mike – Thanks. I’ll have to give Seth the credit for product starter concept. It’s one that every product professional has to have and use as a balance in their personal portfolio.

  • The Product Management Tribe  On December 9, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Thanks for the comments and sharing the post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: