Leading the Marketing Department through Product Launches

In each organizational setting, there is a unique set of expectations we may consider optimal for good management. The management behaviors that may be most effective for encouraging participation at a brainstorming session, for example, would be very different from the management behaviors required to ensure victory in the heat of battle. And though that principle seems self-evident academically, people tend not to alter their behavior effectively in different settings.

They do, of course, alter their behavior. Place a group of employees who would normally cooperate seamlessly in an extremely stressful situation, and you’ll soon see changes from every member of the group. Some will become quieter and more focused; some will become irritable and snappish; some will become inordinately aggressive, and so on. All of these are natural responses to changes in the environment.

Typical managerial wisdom is to discourage the changes – to tell employees to “calm down and act normally.” And while that advice may be effective at keeping peace, it breeds a culture of tolerance, which could kill a product launch.

Take, for example, vendor management. Under normal circumstances, if a web developer takes a little longer than expected to complete a microsite, the tolerant response would be, “that’s okay; it’s more important to get it right than to deliver it on time.” Here, being tolerant builds stronger vendor relations; it also keeps down long-term costs, by not training the vendor to pad his estimates to cover the overtime he may encounter if his project runs a bit behind schedule. But in a launch setting, the “positive behavior” tolerance could cause your company to miss a launch window, dooming the launch to failure.

Or, consider the cost of being “reasonable.” In the throes of a product launch, everyone on the launch team works a bit faster and a bit longer than normal. 60- and 70-hour weeks at a fevered pitch are not surprising. A reasonable manager would never expect employees to work tirelessly, for 70 hours a week, under normal circumstances. But how should a manager act, when, after weeks of yeoman’s labor, it becomes clear that the launch will fail, unless the entire team, already weary, works straight through the night to complete a critical aspect of the project?

What separates these situations from business-as-usual is the imminence and dire consequence of failure. And these are issues inherent in the launch process itself. As with an object being launched into space, a product must reach escape velocity to avoid falling under its own weight – and failing its objective, at the risk of burning up during reentry.

The first challenge of launch management, then, is knowing when “unreasonable” becomes “acceptable,” and “tolerant” becomes “deadly.” And the second is knowing when to return to the rules of business-as-usual.