Product Management Failure: Google’s Moto X

by drjim on August 19, 2013

Google’s Moto X is pretty, but it could have been better…

Google’s Moto X is pretty, but it could have been better…
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As you slave away at your product management job, you probably dream of how great it would be to work at some progressive company where (finally!) your skills as a product manager would be truly appreciated. Some company that understood the important role that we product managers play and who would give us the authority to make things happen. A company like, oh say, Google. How great would that look on your product manager resume? Well, not to burst your bubble or anything, but the recent release of the new Moto X cell phone by Motorola seems to indicate that even these guys haven’t got the product management thing straight yet…

The Project: Moto X

So just exactly what was the “Moto X” project? It turns out that it was a very important product for Motorola. A while back Google made a surprise move and purchased Motorola. A few years ago, Motorola had been a leading manufacturer of consumer cell phones with their Razr, Droid, and StarTAC lines. However, they had fallen behind and consumers were no longer purchasing their phones.

Google’s purchase of Motorola was seen as a daring gamble by the firm. For the first time they were going to get into the business of manufacturing real products instead of just being a service provider. The big question that everyone was asking was what would the next cell phone that Motorola created under the guidance of their new Google master look like?

That phone was the Moto X. Google spent US$13B to purchase Motorola, everyone expected great things from the next phone. Given that there was this much excitement and attention being paid to the Moto X project, you’d think that the product managers would have no problems getting anything that they’d need, right? Turns out that you’d be wrong…

What Went Wrong In The Product Management Area

The stories that are starting to leak out about how the development and launch of the Moto X project went are starting to tell a tale that most product managers would easily recognize. One of the biggest issues had to do with the Android operating system that the phone uses. Developers of the phone were able to work closely with other parts of Google, but when they sought help from the Android team they often received no response, people who worked there said. Ouch!

Additionally, there were significant concerns on the team that the Chrome Web browser app (created by Google) wouldn’t be able to come preinstalled on the Moto X, because developers couldn’t get information they needed from Google as to how it would function on the device, said a person familiar with the project. This is a clear example of a failure to communicate.

Not having a strong relationship may have prevented Motorola from incorporating the latest version of Android, said two people familiar with the matter. Considering that the phone is being made by a division of Google, you would think that having access to the latest version of the phone’s operating system would be a no-brainer part of the product development definition.

Finally, in the words of one Motorola employee “It’s not like we were equally disadvantaged—we were more disadvantaged.” Clearly, the Motorola employees felt that they had less access to the Google resources that they needed than people who worked at other firms did.

Clearly this is a product manager failure. These obvious communication issues needed to be worked out and worked out early on. Going up the management ladder to get issues resolved or getting on a plane and having a face-to-face meeting would have been two ways to make this happen. Yes, the product was launched, but it could have been so much better if only these issues had been resolved.

What This Means For You

It can be very easy to dream about how great life would be if only we worked at a different company. However, every so often we get reminded that every company has its own set of product management challenges. Google’s release of their Moto X cell phone shows us that even they have their own set of issues no matter what it says on their product manager job description.

The team that was responsible for managing the Moto X product ran into a set of classic product management challenges: communication problems. Despite the high priority of the project, they struggled to get the attention of the people that they needed to talk with.

These problems could have been solved with stronger product managers. There is no product problem that you can’t resolve, you just need to take the time to do it right! Learn from Google’s mistakes and make sure that your product doesn’t suffer from the same problems.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Who’s fault were the Moto X communication problems: Motorola’s or Google’s?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce McCarthy August 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Whether it’s Moto’s or Google’s fault is the wrong question. Both companies are Google now and they must act like it or continue to fail at phones.

I would call this a failure to get buy-in at the right level in the combined organization. Someone placed high enough that *both* teams would view them as authoritative needed to (and still should) point out that the reason Google bought Moto was to make a better phone than either could do alone.

That someone is not likely to be a product manager, but it *is* the product manager’s job to get the buy-in they need.

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Dr. Jim Anderson August 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Bruce: I think that you make a really good point. It’s a bit amazing that somehow the different parties were allowed to not communicate — wasn’t there a high up person who’s job was riding on the success of the Moto X who could have made everyone “play nice” together?

No matter. The success / failure of a product always rests on the product manager’s shoulders in the end…

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Roger L. Cauvin August 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I’m not seeing these problems as being in the purview of product management. It seems to be more of a development issue. Yes, we can always resort to saying that product managers are ultimately accountable for the success of the product, but it gets silly at a certain point. If lightning struck and killed all the developers, would we hold the product manager accountable for not having taken better precautions to safeguard developers from disastrous weather conditions?

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Roger L. Cauvin August 23, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I’ll add that my opinion of who “owns” the product or its success or failure is the entire product team. A product manager has a unique role in empowering the product team with market information, marketing principles, the business model for the product (synthesized from the market information and application of timeless marketing principles), and for fostering a shared sense of ownership among members of the team. Teams work much better when there is a shared sense of ownership and not assumption or assignment of ownership to a single individual.

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Dr. Jim Anderson August 23, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Roger: I hear what you are saying — there’s a limit to everything; however, it sure seems like the Moto X problem was not technical, but rather a communication problem. I think that resolving that type of problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the product manger.

That being said, it sure would have been helpful to have some senior management types step in and lend a hand…

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Roger L. Cauvin August 23, 2013 at 1:34 pm

But the practical reason you should reject the notion of product management “owning” the product is that it undermines one of the key determinants of product success. The most successful product teams possess a culture in which the team owns the product. Each member of the team – whether a developer, sales person, marketer, support specialist, or tester – has strengths and plays roles that contribute to the team effort, and ultimately to market acceptance and product profits. They all feel accountable for the success of the product and the team, and there is no need for a “single throat to choke”. This form of accountability is a highly effective motivator and yields impressive productivity and outcomes.

http://blog.cauvin.org/2011/12/who-owns-product.html

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Roger L. Cauvin August 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Yeah, I don’t see all internal corporate communications problems being in the hands of the product manager. It was a communications issue about execution and development matters. A development manager probably has a more important responsibility to resolve such communications issues.

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Alicia Dixon August 26, 2013 at 9:41 am

Jim & Roger,

Do you think that the Moto team should have stopped the launch knowing that the product was not ready to compete in the market?

Alicia

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Dr. Jim Anderson August 30, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Alicia: No! This is one of those situations where the product will never be perfect — in fact the Moto X is actually selling well. However, it could have been better if only the product manager / senior management could have stepped in and fixed the problems. Not a big enough deal to hold the launch, just a missed opportunity…

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Roger L. Cauvin August 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Based on Jim’s account of what happened, I agree with him that the problems with developing the Moto X shouldn’t have kept Google from releasing the product.

Perhaps the Moto X team could have used some lean startup tactics to test some hypotheses and confront risks quicker, however. But it sounds like the fundamental problem was with Motorola-Google communication.

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