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What Product Managers Can Learn From “Think Like A Freak”

I have always been amazed by how deftly the TV series Mad Men dramatizes the tension between creativity and efficiency. A scene from a recent episode stuck with me for days. Let me set the stage for you:

The Scenario

It’s a Saturday morning. Peggy, a copywriter, is in her office, fretting. She’s been tasked with developing a pitch for a potential client, and she’s struggling. It’s not that she can’t come up with any ideas; she’s already gotten an idea approved by her superiors, but she’s having doubts.

She lights a cigarette and calls the agency’s art director.

          “I don’t like the idea,” she tells him. He assures her that the pitch is great, but she doesn’t buy it.

          “We both know there’s a better idea,” she says.

          “There’s always a better idea,” he says. With a resigned sigh she says goodbye and hangs up the phone.

At some point in our careers, we’ve all felt like Peggy.  Decision-makers are constantly forced to choose one direction over another. Even the most confident amongst us struggle with self-doubt. The question becomes: How do you manage your doubts? Do you chalk up your anxiety to insecurity, or do you reconsider your strategy?

What Would You Do?

Imagine what you would do in this situation: You get a good idea and your boss gives you his blessing. Everyone gets to work. Your team logs man hours, the company spends money on development. Everything runs smoothly, and then all of a sudden you become paralyzed with second thoughts. You lose faith in your idea.

Flaws and shortcomings become apparent. You become aware of paths not taken. A new idea occurs to you. The new idea feels stronger, more original. You have a hunch that it could reap bigger rewards. Would you move forward with the original idea and let the chips fall where they may? Or, would you start over from scratch with the new, potentially better, idea?

Think Like A Freak

In my experience, most product managers would stick with the original idea. The maxim “winners never quit and quitters never win” is painted on gymnasiums walls all over America for a reason. Giving up is equated with failure. Everyone wants to be perceived as being confident and reliable. No one wants to develop a reputation for being foolish or impulsive.

According to Stephen Duber and Steve Levitt, the creators of the Freakonomics empire, sometimes quitting is the smartest decision a person can make.

Starting Fresh

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dubner explained how giving up on an idea and starting a new one can result in better business decisions.

“In business – and especially in politics, in our personal relationships, etc. – there is still way too much reluctance to abandon a project that isn’t worth pursuing,” Dubner said. “One problem is the sunk-cost fallacy. Once you’ve put a lot of time, money, energy, etc., into a project, it may seem counterproductive to stop. But that’s not necessarily the case. Consider the opportunity cost: every hour, dollar, or brain cell that you’re putting into Project A is one less that you could be putting into Project B.”

Quitting Is The Secret

Levitt has gone as far as to say that quitting is the secret to his success:

“If I were to say one of the single most important explanations for how I managed to succeed against all odds in the field of economics, it was by being a quitter,” Levitt said in a recent Freakonomics podcast. “Ever since the beginning, my mantra has been ‘fail quickly.’ If I started with a hundred ideas, I’m lucky if two or three of those ideas will ever turn into academic papers. One of my great skills as an economist has been to recognize the need to fail quickly and the willingness to jettison a project as soon as I realize it’s likely to fail.”

Sometimes we forget that huge rewards can’t be achieved without taking big risks. The “fake it ‘til ya make it” ethos of corporate business culture cultivates a species of managers who operate from a place of fear and insecurity. No one wants to be wrong. No one wants to look bad. No one wants to take risks. But sometimes you need to be wrong before you can be right.

The Advice

Make bold choices. Take risks. Give your employees opportunities to fail quickly. Sometimes quitting pays off in the end. Just take a look at Peggy on Mad Men. She scraps her original pitch and spends the rest of the episode toiling over a new idea. She pitches the new idea to the client, and everyone loves it. The agency wins the account, and Peggy secures her future at the agency.

I may lose credibility points for choosing to illustrate my point with a work of fiction, but I’d like to think the writers of one of the most critically-acclaimed televisions shows of all time know a thing or two about making intelligent creative choices.

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