Product Mangers Can Learn From The Past: The Story Of The Vasa

by drjim on January 27, 2009

Product Managers Often Have To Learn To Deal With Product Suggestions From Senior Management

Product Managers Often Have To Learn To Deal With Product Suggestions From Senior Management

Oh man , do I have a story for you. How many times have we been in charge of a product when “higher powers” have come along with suggestions on how to make the product better? Or perhaps they suggest features that the product just must have before it goes out the door?

These types of suggestions can kill a product no matter how carefully you have nurtured it up to this point. The impacts can range from timelines, expenses, all the way to final product price. So much for your best laid plans.

George Neville-Neil over at the Communications of the ACM is well aware of events like this. He tells the story of the the good ship Vasa and this tale has a lot of warnings for us Product Managers.

This is a story that starts back in 1626 when the king of Sweden, King Gustavus Adolphus, ordered the building of the Vasa. It took two years to create this ship. King Adolphus was keen to have it because at the time he was trying very hard to rule the Baltic Sea.

Just to prove to you that things really don’t change, you need to understand that King Adolphus was deeply involved in the design of all of the ships in his naval fleet. Can you say “too much senior management involvement”?

Back in the 1600’s, warships had one deck of cannons on both the left and the right side of the ship. The commission orders for the Vasa ordered that she be created with this design.

Now at just about this time, good King Adolphus discovered that the Poles had somehow created ships with two decks of guns on them (for a total of four decks of guns). Needless to say the King developed a serious case of cannon envy.

Since he was king and could basically do anything that he wanted, King Adolphus modified the design of the Vasa to now include two decks of guns. To the king’s credit, on paper the Vasa was now the most powerful ship of its day and had a great deal of firepower.

As with all great senior management plans, this one had just one little flaw. The designers of the ship realized that there was now a problem and attempted to explain that to the king. What they had discovered was that the ship’s design called for it to have too little ballast in order to support two heavy gun decks. They believed that building the ship that the king had designed would result in a ship that would be unsafe to sail.

You know how this story goes – it’s good to be king. The king wanted his ship and he wanted it the way that he had designed it. The building of the ship continued.

(This is my favorite part of the story that George tells) In 1628 the ship was done and ready for initial testing. One of the tests that they did was a stability test. In this test, 30 sailors were selected and asked to run back and forth from side-to-side on the ship’s deck. If the ship didn’t tip over and sink then it was basically good to go. During this testing of the Vasa, the ship started to tilt widely and they ended up cancelling the test.

You would think that this was the end of the story. But it isn’t.

On August 10th, 1628, the king’s mighty ship the Vasa set sail for the first time. The ship got about a mile away from the dock when a good stiff breeze came along and knocked the ship sideways, she took on too much water, and then she promptly sunk.

Of course there was an investigation in order to find out what had gone wrong. Since the king, of course, could not have been the problem, the question was who was to blame. In the end, the sinking was chalked up to an “Act of God” and forgotten.

However, in the 1960’s the Vasa was raised from the sea and was placed in a museum in Stockholm. If you ever get there, make sure that you drop in and see it – a shrine to all product mangers who’ve had to deal with meddling senior management.

Have you ever been given “suggestions” from senior management for your product? Where they any good? What did you do with them? Was the product made better by them? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Mason January 27, 2009 at 11:05 am

There’s a great movie starring Kelsey Grammer and Cary Elwes called “The Pentagon Wars” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0144550) that follows a similar plot.
Great entertainment for Product Managers.

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 28, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Carol: Thanks for the link! Despite the fact that it came out in ’98, I can’t remember ever hearing about this TV movie (even though it appears to have won a Primetime Emmy). Looks like it’s time for me to dust off the NetFlix subscription and add yet another movie to it…!

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adi January 27, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Great post!
Like they used to say in the 1600’s: hip hip hooray!

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 28, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Adi: … and in the case of the Vasa crew “Help, I can’t swim!”

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Adi January 28, 2009 at 3:40 pm

🙂

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Tabita Green February 2, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Great correlation to one of my favorite challenges in the world of Product Management. I will definitely share this with my team. Btw, I think this is the best museum in Stockholm.

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Dr. Jim Anderson February 3, 2009 at 9:09 am

Tabita: I’m glad you liked it. I can understand where things went wrong, but boy-o-boy would a ship with that many cannons have been cool to have (oh, I guess that’s what caused the problem in the first place!)

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Lena February 4, 2009 at 11:35 am

Love how you saw the parallel 🙂 Very smart.

It’s a great museum – in fact going there in two weeks!

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Dr. Jim Anderson February 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Lena: have a great trip – dress warmly! If you send me a better picture of the Vasa, I’ll replace the model boat!

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Chris Steele December 31, 2009 at 5:12 am

Hi Jim, I’ve just come across this post and was amazed, because I posted a very similar one just a month later.
http://effectivus.com/2009/02/competitive-edge/
No plagiarism; I’d been to see the Vasa with an old friend whilst visiting Sweden. It”s a brilliant museum, a must see for anyone visiting Stockholm. Great to see someone else recognise what a brilliant lesson it is for all of us Product Managers!

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Chris: I’ve read your post — nicely done! I think that any of us who have worked for even a little while are instantly drawn to the the story of the Vasa. It’s not a question of WHY it happened, it’s really probably just a question of why it doesn’t happen more often!

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