Product management tips can sometimes come from unexpected places. You probably wouldn’t expect to find them in, for example, a movie about the 2015 Ford Mustang. But A Faster Horse, a documentary film covering the development and launch of that car, offers many product management lessons.
Which is ironic, because the movie itself doesn’t contain a single reference to product managers or product management. But this is clearly a product management film — a real-life case study of the struggles, the setbacks, the victories, the tough calls and the intense and constant pressure product managers face every day to bring a product successfully to market.
If you’re a product manager, or even considering getting into the field, you’ll want to watch this movie.
Memorable Product Management Quotes in the Film
And if before committing 90 minutes of your time to watching A Faster Horse, you need convincing that this really is a movie that speaks directly to product managers, here are just a few memorable quotes from the film’s central figure — the Chief Program Engineer of the 2015 Ford Mustang, Dave Pericak:
“The nature of the job is, you’re accountable for everything, but you don’t control directly any of the resources.”
“It really comes down to getting people who don’t report to you to do what you need them to do. It’s the ultimate definition of being a leader.”
“My job is to be the biggest cheerleader in the group.”
Definitely the sentiments of a product manager, right? Dave Pericak is alternatively referred to throughout the movie as the 2015 Mustang’s Chief Program Engineer and Chief Nameplate Engineer — but as these quotes show, he has a lot in common with a product manager. In fact, another senior member of Dave’s team explains that, if the 2015 Ford Mustang were a corporation itself, Dave Pericak would be its CEO.
The movie weaves together two fascinating stories. First, the 50-year history of the Ford Mustang, one of the most groundbreaking and successful cars in history. Second, the five-year history — taking us right up to the present day — of the launch of the redesigned 2015 Mustang, one of the industry’s most anticipated new cars in years. Throughout the film, we are treated to many great lessons in how to succeed as a product manager under the most intense pressure imaginable. Here are a few of those lessons.
Great Product Management Lessons We Can Learn from A Faster Horse
1. You’ll Never Have Everything You Need — So Learn to Build With What You Have
1. You’ll Never Have Everything You Need — So Learn to Build With What You Have
Early on in the film Gale Halderman, the man whose design sketch became the very first Ford Mustang in 1965, makes the following statement, which any product manager can relate to:
“Designing a good-looking car is absolutely as easy as pie. Designing a car that the company can afford… that the manufacturing guys can assemble… and that the engineers can engineer… that’s damn difficult.”
One of the most prominent themes in this documentary is the role of trade offs in the development of any successful product. As they go through the multi-year development process for the 2015 Mustang, all of the team’s senior members are fully aware of the fact that they don’t have unlimited time, an unlimited budget or the ability to defy physics (or safety regulations) with the creation of this new car. They have to work within reality — which often means they aren’t able to do something exactly the way they’d like or to get exactly what they were hoping for.
Throughout this movie, we watch as the 2015 Ford Mustang’s Chief Program Engineer (read: Product Manager) is confronted with one tough call after another: engineering difficulties, budgetary problems, tension with suppliers. Dave and his team are constantly having to weigh priorities against other priorities. As his project manager explains to him in a status meeting: “We have no more money. We are now at the stage of one in, one out.”
And as Dave himself later says about the finished, approved version of the 2015 Mustang: “Literally, every millimeter of this car has been fought over.”
The lesson? To paraphrase designer Gale Halderman, you can envision and design your product to be perfect, or nearly perfect. But then you need to start adding in the constraints and limitations of reality. In your case, that could be your company’s budget, the size and skill level of your development team, your executives’ patience and risk tolerance, your competitors’ progress, the requirements of your sales team or your investors for a new product by a certain date, etc.
Yes, to be a successful product manager you need to champion — even love — your products. And that means wanting your products to be perfect. But after you’ve envisioned perfection, then you need to start making the tough decisions to cut and prioritize based on reality.
2. Welcome the Tension Between Your Teams — it Means You’re Pushing Boundaries
Here’s another great insight from our Mustang Chief Engineer, Dave Pericak:
“I always like the creative tension between the design studio and the engineering teams. If you’re not frustrated with your design community, you probably have a boring design — because to engineer a really good design is a lot harder than it is to engineer a box.”
The film documents many moments in which the engineering team either explains or demonstrates to Dave and his designers why there are specific engineering issues with the car. A part that needs to be included in the engine weighs 70 pounds more than expected. There’s a problem with vibration in both the steering wheel and gas pedal that the team can’t seem to fix to Dave’s satisfaction. And on and on.
As he faces these issues with his technical teams, Dave’s frustration shows. But in cooler, more level-headed moments, he explains that these are all part of the process. You simply can’t create something that pushes boundaries without running into some issues. And, indeed, running into the issues is sometimes a good signal that you are indeed innovating with your product.
A capable, talented group of engineers can easily build something that’s standard and routine. So when you as a product manager find that you are taxing your developers’ limits, it can sometimes serve as an indication that your product is breaking new ground.
3. Don’t Just Give Your Customers What They Ask for — Because They Don’t Always Know What They Want
This insight comes from the movie’s title, A Faster Horse, and the explanation behind it at the end of the film:
“In an era when everybody had a horse, [Henry Ford] would say to the people, ‘What do you want?’ And they’d always say, ‘A faster horse.’ He gave them something different.”
This is one of the most important lessons in product management: Your customers don’t always know what they want, because in many cases it hasn’t been developed and shown to them yet.
Product management is not, fundamentally, about developing products. That is a tactic in support of the product manager’s ultimate objective, which is to solve problems for their market. Henry Ford saw that people’s freedom of movement was limited by the fact that the fastest means of personal transportation available to them was a horse. So he set out to solve that problem — to give the average person more freedom of movement, with a more effective means of personal transportation.
Ford’s key user personas back then couldn’t tell him that they wanted an automobile, a mechanized personal vehicle that was faster and more efficient than a horse. Most people simply didn’t have the language to explain it or even the vision to imagine it. That was ultimately the job of Henry Ford — one of the best product managers in history.
Similarly, if Dave Pericak were simply to put out surveys in 2010 to Mustang’s millions of customers or interview its biggest fans, could they have told him exactly what they wanted in the new 2015 model? Would all or even most of that feedback have been consistent across the respondents? And even if it were, would that have been what longtime Mustang fans — and new ones — were really looking for?
Dave’s job was not to be an order taker for his product’s customers, or to implement exactly what they demanded for the next iteration of the Mustang. That is not the role of a product manager — certainly not an effective one.
Customer surveys alone didn’t lead to the iPhone. Or to Facebook or Slack.
No, your role as a product manager is not to give your customers precisely what they ask for. It’s to understand your market and your user and buyer personas so well that you can envision what they’ll want or need next — even before they know it themselves.
4. Product Management Isn’t Primarily a Management Role at All — it’s About Leadership
At several points in the film, Dave Pericak explains that his primary function is not to be a manager or executive or dictator — but rather to be a leader.
Here’s one more great quote from Dave describing how he views himself as the Mustang’s Chief Program Engineer:
“My job is not to yell at people. I don’t do that. My job is to be the biggest cheerleader in the group. I think people are more willing to walk out on a limb — even if they think that limb might break — if they know that you’re going to be there to catch them. As a leader, I try to give them freedom. There are a lot smart people held back by their own fears and inhibitions. And if you allow them to go out on the edge, hang out a little bit, knowing that no matter what happens you will catch them — people will go out on the thinnest branches for you.”
This might be the film’s most important lesson for a product manager. Remember the quote from Dave posted in the introduction to this post? He said, “It really comes down to getting people who don’t report to you to do what you need them to do. It’s the ultimate definition of being a leader.”
As a product manager you will need to bring out the A-games of people across many different teams to deliver a successful product to the market. You’ll need the best from your developers, your executive stakeholders, your marketing team, your salespeople, and a host of other groups. These people will almost certainly not report to you — which means you will need other skills and leverage to persuade them to give the product 100% of their effort and dedication.
One key skill you will need is the ability to communicate your enthusiasm for the initiative — as Dave Pericak puts it, to be “the biggest cheerleader in the group” — and then to bring that enthusiasm out of the rest of your team.
And perhaps the second most valuable skill you can develop is the ability to instill confidence in the people helping you develop your products — to show them that you believe in them, want them to succeed, and will always support them in pushing boundaries as long as they are acting, as you are, in the best interests of your products.