Be a good dictator

At Webstock ’08 Michael Lopp (aka @rands) gave a great talk about the three components that are needed for any successful product team:

  1. A designer
  2. A developer
  3. A dictator

There is no shortage of advice online about how to be a good designer or a good software developer. But what about advice for those who aspire to be good product dictators? Guidance seems pretty thin on the ground.

Perhaps it’s the name? It’s fair to say that, historically, dictatorship has some PR challenges. Who wants to be a better one of those?

Maybe it’s the lack of role models. After Steve Jobs, who is the most successful product dictator you can think of? Daylight is in second place.

Whatever the reason, let’s think about what an aspiring dictator can do to improve themselves.

Starting with the fundamentals: how do you choose the best thing to dictate?

This great quote from Seth Godin has the answer, in my opinion:

“Change gets made by people who care, who have authority and who take responsibility

So, ask yourself:

What do you care about?

What do you have authority over?

What will you take responsibility for?

(the most important word in all three questions, by the way, is “you”!)

The intersection of these three things is where you’re likely to find the best opportunities to be a good dictator.

Let’s look at four different aspects that are important for good dictators to work on:


A good dictator is careful about the language they use.

There is one word especially that you need to eliminate from your vocabulary, and from your team’s: THEY

Think about how you describe the other people in your team.

Think about how your team describes the other teams in your company.

If you’re working in a technical team there is a variant of “they” which is very common and not so obvious, but just as dangerous: “the business” (as if the business is something external and separate from what you’re working on, and usually not so on to it).

Of course, the word dictators need to use instead is: WE.

Being a good dictator means building a great team, and good teams need all sorts of skills.

This is well understood in the sporting arena. Former All Black coach Graham Henry, for example, has a simple way of explaining his success as a coach:

“The key to being a great coach is coaching the best players”

On first reading that seems unnecessarily humble or flippant given his recent achievements. But, he’s genuine, and making a useful point: when your team is great they make you look good. It’s important to surround yourself with winners because your success is likely to be an average of theirs.

Think about your leadership style. There are alternatives: you can be a sergeant major or a coxswain. My experience is that you can achieve a lot more if you don’t feel that you need to take all the credit, but your mileage may vary.

And then, once you’ve done the easy part of putting the team in place, you need to get on with the much more difficult job of getting them all organised (no, not organised into departments just pulling in the same direction).

Which is a nice segue to the second thing…


Tim Cook, the CEO to replace Steve Jobs at Apple, is quoted as saying that the #1 thing that he learned from Steve was: FOCUS.

After that interview, I spotted this witty response from @cdixon on Twitter:

“As opposed to all of the people who think being unfocused is the key?”

He’s right, of course. But, if we all know that focus is important, why is it so uncommon?

Perhaps part of the reason is that focus is hard to describe:

Source: Indexed by Jessica Hagy

We often don’t recognise when we’re not focussed until afterwards.

For technical people a common reason for losing focus is boredom – we feel we need to be challenged by the technology we’re working on, so we keep adding unnecessary stuff to keep it interesting. Good dictators understand that what matters is not what the software does but what the user does.

For non-technical people it’s more often simple flailing (take a few minutes to read that post so you understand what I mean by that … I’ll wait right here).  Good dictators don’t keep thrashing and splashing and hoping for the best, they work out what moves them forward.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to be awesome to succeed, you just need to find a niche to focus on.

This is what I think Tim Cook means when he talks about focus:

Whether you’re a designer, developer or business person, the more your satisfaction is derived from shipping something, the more your success will be correlated with the success of your venture.

And for dictators that’s true not only of yourself but of your whole team. You need to narrow your collective focus to those things that move you forward.

Innovation vs Execution

Is it enough to ship?

Often when we talk about successful products and product businesses we think about innovation.

But, good dictators are seldom innovators.

Here is a quick list of things that Steve Jobs didn’t invent:

  • Desktop computers
  • GUI
  • Computer animation
  • MP3 players
  • Smart phones
  • Tablet computers

Of course, in all of those cases his teams were pioneers in working out how normal people could be made to desire those things. That’s really what good dictators need to do.

This is much more about execution than innovation.

Execution is one of those words we all use, often without thinking about what it actually means.

The clue is in the name: an innovative idea is like a computer program that has never been run on an actual machine. Anybody who has written any non-trivial code will know the likelihood that this will work as intended is infinitesimally small.

Execution is turning plans into actions. It’s tactical. It’s all about making assumptions and testing them and adjusting as you learn and as the environment you work in changes. It’s getting thousands of little things right, rather than getting one big thing right. It’s HARD!

As Derek Sivers explains, a killer idea is a multiplier, but execution is where the value is. (imagine if we had a Ministry of Execution rather than a Ministry of Innovation – then government funding might make a difference!)

How do you measure execution? The easiest way is to look at sales.

Interestingly, most good dictators don’t seem to be primarily motivated by money. But they know that is how a good dictator keeps score.

All of this begs an interesting question for good dictators with a technical background – because so often teams of designers and developers look down their noses at sales people (think about it: are the sales people in your company WE or THEY?)

Look around: if you don’t have a sales team then you are the sales team!

If you want to be a good dictator the most important question to keep in the front of your mind is: How will you market and sell your product or service? How will you overcome your obscurity?

Being a Polymath

Steve Jobs famously described Apple as operating “at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts”.

Here is a longer quote from Wired Magazine where he explains why this is important:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
~ The Next Insanely Great Thing, Wired, February, 1996

So, ask yourself: What else are you good at? Being a deep expert in just one area is not enough for good dictators. You need to be a polymath living at an intersection.

Think about all of the things that you care about, have authority in and are prepared to take responsibility for.  Then work out what the intersection of those things are, for you and for the team you build around yourself.

Narrow your focus to those things that you can prove move you forward. And don’t forget that, when it all boils down, sales is how you know that you are winning.

Happy Dictating!

8 thoughts on “Be a good dictator”

  1. Fantastic post. Something i’ve longed to read for a while….alas i’m not a designer, or a developer… but becoming increasingly involved with start ups and corporate innovation….

    I’ve been looking for a role to play, thanks for articulating

  2. Focus on the product, not your team’s performance. If your team is not up to your expectations, it’s your fault for not communicating effectively.

    Set generous deadlines and pay a bonus for early completion. Winners are much more productive than losers. Tight deadlines make losers; don’t use them.

    If you have a client’s user panel to help with development, make sure they consist of only the poorest performers. If your product can help them, it will help everyone in your client’s company. If the panel is only the best performers, chances are it will not improve your client’s productivity greatly.

    Measure progress on objective results, such as the number of tests successfully completed. Asking for estimates will not give you reliable reports.

    At your weekly status meetings, walk through a typical usage of your product. Seeing what you’re aiming for will help your team focus on results.

  3. Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking post. I especially enjoyed your points about becoming a polymath and focusing your skills for greatest success. Thanks!

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