Posted by Tom Grant on March 14, 2008
Sometimes, it takes only a simple idea to move out of the Dark Ages. Product management is no exception.
During Europe's Dark Age, mobilizing your kingdom's forces to fight a war was, quite literally, a royal pain. On paper, you could summon the knights and men-at-arms of all your vassals, and all your vassals' vassals, to fight for a prescribed period. In reality, you couldn't expect everyone to show up on time, if at all. Vassals reluctant to fight could drag their feet, inventing excuses why their troops and supplies weren't available. The state of ccmmunications being what it was, word might take a while to spread across this network of feudal obligations. In rare cases, a vassal might actually have obligations to both sides. By the time the king or duke finally assembled the army, winter might be coming soon, ending the military campaign season altogether.
For societies almost constantly at war, these inefficiencies were not merely irritating, but highly dangerous. The Normans figured out an obvious fix: rather than provide troops directly, vassals could send their cash equivalent. The duke of Normandy could use this money to hire mercenaries. Faster, more efficient mobilization gave the Normans an important edge. And we all know what happened as a result, in 1066.
Today, product management seems held back by similar inefficiencies. For example, the data from our tools survey show that PMs know that they could be a lot more efficient, but there's a big gap between the effectiveness of their tools and the frequency with which they depend on them. Replacing spreadsheets and word processing documents with something better is not any harder than the Normans' decision to accept cash in lieu of soldiers.
Someone just has to decide that the current situation isn't justified simply because "That's the way we've always done things," or, "We're afraid of the costs." Sure, it took time for the Normans to get the money and hire the mercenaries--but look at the results.
[P.S. If you're a history geek like me, you'll enjoy the animated Bayeux Tapestry at this link.]