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What can product managers learn from film directors? "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 20 February 2020 True Film, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 659 Blade Runner (ShutterStock image) Product Management 2.636
· 3 minute read

What can product managers learn from film directors?

One day, a colleague and I were having a conversation over a pint as to whether you could make the film Blade Runner using Agile processes. We concluded that you could not. We thought you’d need something more. A vision. A way of developing that vision, and a way to not lose the vision in the process.

Before UX, I worked with stage, film and TV lighting and I think the way that the vision of the film director is developed and retained in these media might aid the vision of successful products.

In film, the vision is the absolute key to success. The vision is the responsibility of the director and constrained by the budget owned by the producer. The director briefs a small number of creative and technical experts – writer, art director, lighting director – with the vision and concepts and starts a creative collaboration long before any technical details are decided.

Blade Runner (ShutterStock image)
Could you make the film Blade Runner using Agile processes? (Image: Shutterstock)

In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott didn’t wield the camera, he didn’t write the screenplay, he didn’t act in it and he didn’t record the sound. But he made sure that the dystopian vision of 21st century LA and the ambiguity of Harrison Ford’s character’s reality engaged both our emotions and our intellects. His holistic vision made it all work together and he was responsible for it. As the big-picture vision begets the detail, coherent creativity can flow. Rutger Hauer wrote his own final speech:

…all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die”

It perfectly enhances Scott’s vision of the humanity of the replicants and is beautifully aligned.

What can product managers learn from film directors?

Firstly, I think our traditions of inclusion, committee and flat structure work against us in our decision making. We typically allow all voices to be heard at the same decision-making level. But if we appreciate that vision is key to success, then it’s better that an individual takes responsibility rather than the crowd. Film protects the vision by creating a hierarchical structure that makes it hard to lose.

Secondly, like the film director, the product manager develops the vision with three key experts:

  1. Business director
  2. Experience director
  3. Technical director

This releases the experts to be creative within the constraints of the vision, but not to challenge its basic themes.Thirdly, in film, everyone knows their roles and sticks with them, having the professionalism to not interfere in another person’s expertise. The director has plenty to do, and a belief in the capabilities of the crew to do the detail which creates the space for the director to focus on dealing with the big picture.

film director (images shutterstock)
Like a film director, a product manager develops the vision

Finally, a camera crew would not choose shots to be filmed, or not. However, they would advise on cost and difficulty so that the director could manage to budget. They would also feedback detail ideas. The fact that Rutger Hauer wrote the most famous speech in Blade Runner is testament to that fact that film structures do not make a one-person show, but rather catalyse a creative team, one that uses all experts to their full extent.

Successful Products Come From Vision

To sum up, I find it enormously reassuring to hear that word ‘vision’ again. Like films, the success of software products comes from a vision of how a product can create a narrative, stimulate emotions to delight and excite and help us think differently about what we do.

The easiest thing to lose is the vision. It may be time to toughen up our hierarchies, seize the vision and let the experts get on with what they do best. Like Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner, and Steve Jobs did at Apple.

Comments 4

Everything fine, except hierarchization. Product manager is not a director but an horizontal coordination role. The moment it is perceived as being hierarchically superior, it stops being product management altogether.
There’s plenty of directors of each kind inside companies. So why do they need product managers in the first place?

Firstly, on the whole I agree, but I’m wired to question my own assumptions, so bear with me 😉

The only problem with this is that the *vast* majority of films that use this system (pretty much all of them) are utter crap, or don’t make their money back. Directors like Ridley Scott are rare enough as it is, and even with someone as talented as him, many of his films could also be considered pretty poor. Because of this, it doesn’t feel like this is a model we should necessarily be trying to reproduce (though aspects of it may have it’s merits).

Having a vision isn’t enough, because it needs to also be the right vision. It would be interesting to see some discussion on how one might go about finding that person with the right vision, as that’s where a system like this will succeed or fail.

This would be a great UXDebate topic I think 🙂 Would love to hear both sides flesh out their arguments.

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