Friday, August 26, 2011

Luck Is Not The Answer


As the 2011 season of the National Football League approaches, so does the rabid anticipation of its parasitic counterpart; fantasy football.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love football (not fĂștbol); particularly the NFL. I grew up a dedicated Patriots fan and have since become more of a fan of the game itself rather than just a New England loyalist.

I tend to keep up with NFL news throughout the year, and regularly download the Rich Eisen Podcast for listening during my morning commute. Rich's guest on the most recent episode was Michael Fabiano, the resident fantasy football expert at NFL.com. At one point during the podcast, Rich and Mike were exchanging viewpoints on what constitutes being an expert and how no matter how much of an expert you are, you need to be lucky to win a fantasy league. A similar sentiment was expressed during a 2010 podcast by one of the guests (I forget whom); that it's all luck and you can't really predict anything.

I take exception to that notion. I'm reminded of the film Rounders in which Matt Damon portrays a young poker shark who, while arguing with his gambling-averse girlfriend says: "Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker EVERY YEAR? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?"

Some say that poker is a game of luck. To some extent, chance does play a factor; you can't control which cards you're dealt. This is why some heavyweights, like Phil Hellmuth, get bumped out of a tournament early and why some previously-unknown players advance deep into the rounds. However, the skill of a top-tier player is rooted in human psychology, statistical calculation, and icy nerve. Anyone can win a hand, but only an expert can hold 11 World Series of Poker bracelets.

I've been playing fantasy football since 1998—one league per year, totaling 13 years—and have won the league 4 times. Another time, I lost in the finals, and I have made the playoffs every other year save for 2 seasons. That's 11/13 playoff appearances, 5/13 finals appearances, and 4 championships. If I were an NFL team, I would be a dynasty. Am I an expert, or just the luckiest guy in my league?

Wait a minute. This was a Product Management blog, right? Why am I going on about fantasy football and poker?

Unless you live on Gilligan's Island, you probably know that Steve Jobs resigned this week from his position as CEO of Apple. This was a huge story because the mystique and lore surrounding Steve Jobs is legendary. Apple's products have captivated not only the high-tech community, but the general population at large. Much of the credit is attributed to Jobs; although he himself did not design all those amazing products and formulate all those winning strategies, he assembled a world-class team around him and had the requisite skills to identify superior ideas and the discipline to pursue excellence.

Steve Jobs is an expert. He is not merely lucky. Luck doesn't transform an on-the-ropes Apple Computer corporation into one of the most profitable and successful companies in history.

Any product manager or product designer can get lucky and have a single hit if the timing and circumstances are just right. Similarly, even the best product minds can strike out frome time to time; Mr. Jobs included. But what makes a truly exceptional product professional/team is one that delivers many successful products over time.

This is what made Steve Jobs special. Under his leadership, Apple delivered hit after hit after hit. Apple represents the gold standard (polished aluminum standard?) of high-tech consumer products. They seem to cover all the bases; design, manufacturing, quality, go-to-market strategy, marketing, pricing, operational readiness, and the list goes on.

While an isolated incident here or there may be attributable to chance or luck, it is a mistake to attribute sustained success in any field to the whims of outrageous fortune. I believe the most successful companies are those that have the discipline to pursue long-term excellence over short-term gains while maintaining strict product and solutions management processes instead of succumbing to haste and the pressures of impatient stakeholders.

My advice to both product professionals and executives is this: Don't swing blindly. Don't rely on luck. Do the hard work. Master your craft. Be strategic, be disciplined, be aware, and many goals can be achieved. The dominant competitor in your field is not running on luck; they are running on excellence.