No matter your profession, there are cautionary tales from the real world that can teach all sorts of valuable lessons.
After spending a number of years working at the intersection of technology & entertainment, I get a kick out of finding lessons in fictional worlds too. Often, the stakes feel higher and the behavior is more outlandish – making them a lot of fun to analyze.
When it comes to cautionary tales for product managers, one of my favorite examples is from that time Homer Simpson designed a car. Homer’s shenanigans can teach us a few valuable lessons – the most interesting of which is not the obvious one.
Quick note. Even though this episode is about Homer “designing” a car, his primary responsibility is to lead a multi-disciplinary team in delivering a product, which I’d argue is much closer to product management than design. In any event, on with the show…
“Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?”
Before we get down to business, let’s recap the episode real quick. Spoiler alert, this episode aired in 1991 and we’re going to cover most of the plot. If you’d rather watch it yourself, find Season 2 – Episode 15. It’s currently available on Disney+ as well as iTunes (affiliate link).
If you want to skip the recap and jump down to the discussion, click here.
S2 Ep15: Recap
After surviving a heart attack, Homer’s father confesses that Homer has an older half-brother who was given up for adoption as a baby.
Homer manages to track this brother down – learning his name is Herb, and that he’s the CEO of a major auto manufacturer in Detroit.
They meet right as Herb is coming to the realization his company is in serious trouble. They’re losing sales to Japanese auto manufacturers, and he’s lost faith in the “white bread” Ivy League yes-men he has on his executive team.
Herb offers to give Homer a car. But when Homer requests either a big car or one with pep, the executive team tells him they don’t make cars like that – because it’s not what Americans want.
And Herb loses it.
“This is why we’re getting killed in the marketplace. Instead of listening to what people want, you’re telling ‘em what they want!”
So, he asks Homer to help him design “a car for all the Homer Simpsons out there”.
Herb gives his engineers strict orders, saying he doesn’t want to see anything until the car is finished.
“Direct all your questions to Mr. Homer Simpson. The man with the vision. That man who’s gonna bust this company out of its rut. The man who’s gonna change American transportation forever!”
Despite their objections, the team of engineers and designers get to work, asking Homer what kind of car he’d like to build.
And it goes downhill from there.
Realizing Homer is ill-equipped for the job, the engineers have him fetching coffee instead of being involved in the design process. Hearing this, Herb gives Homer an inspirational pep talk and insists he show more self confidence.
Homer then storms back into the lab and issues a series of cringe-worthy directives.
“You know that little ball you put on the (antenna) so you can find your car in the parking lot? That should be on every car!”
“And some things are so snazzy they never go out of style. Like tail fins. And bubble domes. And shag carpeting…”
The engineers voice their concerns to Herb, only to be told to shut up and get back to work. In the meantime, Homer continues making demands…
“I want a horn here, here, and here. You can never find a horn when you’re mad. And they should all play La Cucaracha.”
“And sometimes the kids are in the backseat – they’re hollering – they’re making you nuts. There’s gotta be something you could do about that.”
An engineer suggests “Maybe a built-in video game would keep them entertained?”
“YOU’RE FIRED!” Homer yells.
Another engineer tries “What about a separate sound-proof bubble dome for the kids? With optional restraints and muzzles?”
The designers show Homer a few elegant renderings, but he tears them to shreds and gives them a crude sketch instead.
Meanwhile, we see a montage of Herb discovering how wonderful life could be if he found some work/life balance.
As the day of the public unveiling arrives, Herb still hasn’t seen the car. Yet, he stands on stage and proudly proclaims “Tonight, we are going to witness… automotive history.”
A promo video begins, and we hear Homer’s voice telling us how the car is “powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a NERF ball”.
As the curtain pulls back to reveal the car, the announcer booms:
“Presenting the car designed for the average man. The Homer!”
… and the audience lets out a collective gasp.
Because it’s absolutely terrible.
Herb looks like he might have his own heart attack.
Not only is the car an absolute monstrosity, it also costs $82,000 – making it a car for the average man that no average man could actually afford. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be $156,820 in “2020 money” according to the BLS).
To say “The Homer” was a failure is an understatement. It ends up bankrupting the company, and Herb loses everything.
As the episode concludes, we’re left with a parting shot of Herb angrily climbing aboard a bus – wishing he’d never met the real Homer.
As I spend more time with this episode, I keep discovering little truth nuggets. It’s remarkable how much they packed into the episode’s 22 minute runtime. But for the purposes of this little article, let’s focus on three of the biggest take-aways.
1. Infatuation with solutions.
One of my favorite product management maxims is this little gem:
Fall in love with the problem. Don’t get infatuated with your own solutions.
In the context of this episode, there’s plenty of evidence that shows Homer was so infatuated with his own ideas that he ignored the bigger picture of what needed to be accomplished.
He personally liked bubble domes, tail fins, and horns that play La Cucaracha – so he crammed them all into the car. The usability of the vehicle, its cost, and the overall success of company all suffered as a result.
Which makes this an important cautionary tale for product managers. It’s easy to get caught up in flashy solutions if you don’t have a clear understanding of the problems you’re trying to solve.
But solving problems is kind of our whole deal.
We’ve all seen this play out in smaller scales. Like when we come across a landing page with 18 auto-playing videos and no clear signup button. Or when we download an app that has a “clever” user interface but is hard to actually use.
Setting aside the fact that Homer isn’t the most self-aware of characters, if he had taken a step back to evaluate all the underlying problems he was asked to address, he might have done things differently.
Instead, he focused all his efforts on flashy solutions, and didn’t spend any time making sure customers could – and would – pay for the car.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, I ultimately wouldn’t lay the failure of the project entirely at Homer’s feet.
Don’t get me wrong, he royally messed things up. He ignored experts. Focused only on his own solutions. Shouted down alternative ideas. He even named the car after himself.
But who put Homer in that position?
2. Hiring for the job.
When he gave Homer the job, Herb’s exact words were:
“I want you to help me design a car. A car for all the Homer Simpsons out there.”
So, in that respect, Homer actually nailed it. The car was perfectly designed for the one and only Homer Simpson. And that’s the point.
Herb was so infatuated with his clever solution of having an average man design a car for the average man that he didn’t consider whether this average man was right for the job.
Plenty of managers do something similar when growing their teams, and it’s easy to see how it happens. It’s really easy to recognize whether someone checks a particular demographic box, went to a certain type of school, or previously worked at a specific company. It’s much harder to identify specific criteria that will make someone good at a job.
If Herb had taken a step back and come up with a list of skills that would make someone successful in this role, he’d have made a very different decision. To create a new car, he’d need someone who was good at working with a multi-disciplinary team of designers, engineers, and marketers. He’d need someone who could use data to make difficult decisions, solve problems for their team, and appropriately prioritize their efforts. Of course they’d also need to be able to represent the needs of the target market, have some level of experience in the field, be able to translate vague requirements into action items, etc. etc. etc.
Homer didn’t have any of these skills. And at one point, he basically gave Herb a list of reasons why he was the wrong person for the job. But Herb pushed him to keep going anyway.
If Herb had hired appropriately, the person in the role would have had the skills necessary to take the vague assignment of “design a car for all the Homer Simpsons” and turn it into a clear vision tied to business outcomes.
But Herb clearly had a pattern of hiring based on simple criteria. Earlier in the episode, he asked his executive team “why did I ever hire you Harvard dead-heads?” and their immediate response was “because you went there, sir”.
All of which makes this an important cautionary tales for hiring managers.
If you hire based on simple attributes – ignoring the skills necessary to do the job well – it can lead to disastrous outcomes.
3. The art of listening.
For the last point, let’s jump back a little earlier in the episode. Moments before he hired Homer, Herb made an important point while yelling at his executive team:
“Instead of listening to what people want, you’re telling ‘em what they want!”
When building products, there’s a fine line to walk between addressing customer needs while also creating a product that feels novel and exciting. Customer feedback can be incredibly valuable during the process – but doing everything a customer says is not the same thing as listening to them.
Sometimes customers aren’t speaking the same “language” as us when expressing their needs. They’ll often request specific solutions as a way of explaining their problems. So it’s our responsibility to dig deeper so we can translate those requests into something the team can work with.
In this example, it seems Herb’s executives had data about general market trends. It’s not clear where they got the information, so let’s assume they commissioned some sort of quantitative survey.
Side note: There’s a whole discussion to be had about the art form of merging quantitative and qualitative data to tell a story, but let’s put that aside for the moment.
Herb and his executives had a target market in mind – but Homer’s requests contradicted their understanding of that market. They could have asked more questions to better understand the problems driving Homer’s requests:
- “I want a big car” = driving can be scary, so customers value the sense of security they get from a large vehicle
- “Every car should have an antenna ball” = it can be difficult for customers to find their car in a parking lot when they’re carrying bags and trying to wrangle their children, so there’s an opportunity to help customers find their cars more quickly
- “My kids drive me nuts from the back seat” = the back seat experience can be boring for passengers which can lead to unsafe conditions for the driver, so there’s an opportunity to innovate there as well
Instead, Herb and his team responded at two opposite extremes of the spectrum; the executives scoffed at Homer’s input, while Herb bet the entire company on it. They all heard the words he said, but none of them bothered to listen to what he was saying.
Speaking from personal experience, this can be one of the hardest things to know how to handle. On one hand, customer input can be valuable. On the other, when you’re creating something that works in a novel way, there’s going to be a certain degree of change-aversion in customers’ initial reactions. So it can be tough to find the right balance.
Based on what Herb said early in the episode, it seems the company had been losing market share for quite some time. And given how his executives reacted when speaking to someone in their target market, it’s clear they were out of touch with actual customers.
So Herb was on to something when he recognized a need to engage with customers more closely, he just took things too far.
And it cost him the company.
It’s this need for a middle ground that makes this one of the more interesting lessons of the episode. And one I find myself coming back to over and over again.
Of course this whole thing is one silly example after another. But that’s one of the reasons why it’s so fun to analyze. There are no real stakes involved, but you can learn a lot about what “not to do” thanks to absurd characters like Homer.
Other things to think about…
This episode is packed to the brim with lessons that still resonate almost 30 years after it premiered. I highly recommend watching the whole thing, particularly if you work in Technology, Product Management, Design, or are a manager of any kind.
As you do, here are a couple other themes I think are worth considering:
- Herb was actually the architect of his own destruction
- How setting an unclear vision can set your team up for failure – particularly if you don’t let them give input along the way
- How the lack of diversity in a leadership team can cause group-think
- How it’s important to find a way to express your concerns if you disagree with someone on your team
- How it can be dangerous to have a lack of humility
- How a decent work/life balance can be more meaningful than running a huge company of people who don’t care about you