Marty’s Note: The following article was written by long-time SVPG Partner, Martina Lauchengco. Martina is one of our industry’s true thought leaders in marketing, product, and especially product marketing. She is also the brains behind SVPG. I have written about some of her many accomplishments before, but I love this article because it shares her origin story. I thought this also a timely celebration of #WomenInProduct. If you don’t know Martina, I encourage you to learn more about her. She represents the very best of our industry in every sense.
I don’t remember exactly at which point during puberty lessons we were told “it’s natural at this age to question authority.” But despite the warning, my parents felt ill-equipped to deal with me from about age 11 to sometime in my sophomore year in college. And perhaps because it was so masked in my conflicts with them, I myself missed that this was the time a core part of my essential programming took shape: I always drove myself to find a better way.
My dad was that guy who would see cars lined up for miles approaching the exit at Disneyland and go find a different exit and ‘back way around’ that had no other cars. He was the guy who would try every door at a venue to see if one of them was accidentally left open that would allow us to slip in away from the crowds. He was never afraid to challenge the status quo and did so often.
Maybe it was the many years of seeing him do this–and often seeing him succeed by bucking conventional thought–that embedded in me the instinct to do the same. As a pre-Google-maps teenager, this would take the shape of me trying to find new ways to get to the mall or a favorite lunch spot faster than my friends. At live rock concerts, I would command my friends as I took their hands, “Don’t let go,” and navigate us through the exiting swarm by worming into the tiniest bits of space that no one else dared try.
But it’s worth became really powerful when I hit the workforce. In my first internship at Kraft Europe, I was told by a coworker answering the phone that the approval for a new countertop coffee display–which required signatures from five other departments–was “in the stack, and we’ll get to it when we get to it.” I decided to walk up the two flights of stairs, stand there with the form, and see if I could get the two-minute approval. When that worked, I proceeded to do the same for each subsequent department. Apparently, no one else had thought to use the sneaker network instead of inter-office mail to reduce a multi-week process into a one-day tour. My boss was stunned–and impressed–that I’d gone from no progress to approved in a day.
When I started working at Microsoft, I was the most junior product manager, which meant I got the collection of jobs no one else really wanted. In my case, that included overseeing direct mail and end-of-life-ing a soon obsolete Word for DOS. The direct mail team came to me with the last creative concept they’d used asking what I wanted to alter for the next piece. I asked, “Have we thought about interviewing customers who already upgraded to promote their reasons why in their own words?” It was a novel idea at the time. The presumption back then was those in the industry could say it better than ordinary users. “No, we haven’t done that before, but I guess we can interview a few users,” offered the direct mail lead. It resulted in a totally new direct mail piece that was the best performing Wave 4 the team had done.
The guy who handed Word for DOS off told me, “You’re babysitting it’s end-of-life. You shouldn’t have to touch anything.” But when I looked at it’s packaging, it was a complicated design which was expensive to produce. I met with the packaging team to see if we could simplify it, got approval, and within months had shaved over $1M in total costs from the product’s bottom line. The guy who had done the handoff asked me, “Did someone tell you to do that?” “No,” I replied, “it just seemed like the obvious thing to do.”
It’s only in hindsight and working with thousands of others in the interim that I realized looking for a better way isn’t obvious to many people nor is being in the habit of challenging assumptions. The world needs all types, so I have no judgment for those who don’t work this way, but I will say for those who aspire to create, regardless of background, skills, or where you apply them, this fundamental way of questioning the status quo is important for creation. And creation is what’s essential for true innovation–which is finding something that is a truly unique, novel solution.
Know that challenging the status quo does not mean challenging reason, facts themselves or doing so merely for the sake of being contrarian. It means taking as a given facts and constraints as they are and pushing for a better, smarter way through them.
So, no matter what you do, ask “Is there a better way?” and just do it! You might be surprised where it could lead you.