11 Things I Learned About Product Development from Spinal Tap

Posted on March 28, 2014.

When it comes to cult classics, few movies have created a legend on par with This Is Spinal Tap. This 1984, Rob Reiner mockumentary follows the fictitious band Spinal Tap from its humble roots through its meteoric rise to success and then back down to Earth. Along the way they contributed some of pop culture’s most famous and funniest moments, one-liners and memorable movie quotes.

What’s even more fascinating is that, as you break down the movie into discrete skits you can begin to attribute broader significance to the seemingly for-laughs-only ridiculousness of the band’s antics. In this article, I’ve taken 11 (naturally) key moments in the movie and applied them as lessons in product development. Here we go…

1. “It’s a trilogy really…”

In this scene, Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) explains to Rob Reiner that he’s working on a new piece. Reiner remarks that it’s different than what the band normally plays as Tufnel goes on to explain that it’s not just one song but part of a trilogy. If there’s one thing that every maker learns eventually it’s that focus is key. Trying to take on too much from the outset often ends up in miserable failure. In this case, Nigel is set on creating a trilogy yet he’s barely written the beginnings of the first part. As you set out to build your next product, pare down your focus until you’re working on one thing. Make that one thing the best it can be before expanding it to take on broader responsibilities. Don’t write the trilogy before you’ve written the first song.


2. “It’s called ‘Lick My Love Pump’”

As the scene above progresses, Nigel tells Reiner the name of the trilogy – Lick My Love Pump. The name immediately gives a sense of what this musical masterpiece is going to be about if not drawing offense first from its target audience. As you build your product, pay special attention to the name. It may seem innocuous at first but the name of your product conveys expectations that you then have to meet with your product experience.


3. “…don’t even look at it…”

Nigel loves his guitars. One of them is so special that he instructs Reiner to not only avoid touching it but to avert his eyes from it. This is his shiny object. The thing that keeps him from focusing on his main goal to write this new trilogy and ensure the band’s ongoing success. As you build your product, you too will come across these shiny objects. They’ll tempt you and steal your attention if you let them. In the end though, they will not help you build that one great product. Indeed, take Nigel’s advice and “don’t even look at it” until you’ve nailed your primary goal.


4. Mini Stonehenge…

Spinal tap – Stonehenge by samithemenace

In this scene, the band attempts to create a life-size replica of Stone Henge on stage while little people dance around it. However, the specifications for the replica are misunderstood since they are written on a napkin by hand. The final product ends up being 12 inches tall instead of 12 feet tall making the little people appear to tower over Stonehenge as opposed to being overshadowed by it.

Communication is key in product development. Sometimes that communication takes the written form. In those cases, it is imperative to be crystal clear about the requirements of the product or service. More often, it is best to communicate face to face. Talk to your colleagues. Understand their needs and their vision. Help them achieve that by ensuring everyone on the team is clear on what’s required and what would make the product a success.


5. “…none more black…”

In this scene, the band sees it’s new album cover for the first time. They’re in awe of how black it is and declare it the epitome of black stating there is nothing on Earth that is “more black” than this album cover.

They were proud. They had a vision and they sweated the details. Do the same with your product. Often, it is those details that you work so hard to preserve that make the heart and personality of your product. Ensure at least some of them make it in.


6. “…miniature bread…”

As part of their catering the band receives small bread. They struggle mightily to make the bread fit the rest of the sandwich components only to lash out in frustration at the lack of sandwich part coordination. The bread clearly failed to meet their expectations and the needs of their activity.

Make sure you understand your audience and their needs. The product your make for them should fit in with the rest of their related activities. It shouldn’t force them to rethink the way they’ve always performed certain functions. If you design your product to seamlessly fit into existing workflows, it stands a much greater chance of success.


7. “…he just blew up…”

Spinal Tap struggled to maintain one person on the drums. Through various accidents, tragedies and unexplained phenomena each drummer in the band met an untimely end. This never phased the band as they transitioned from drummer to drummer.

Your team as well must be ready for personnel change. It is inevitable. People quit, find better jobs, get fired or simply move on. It’s a fact of life and one your team must be ready to recover from quickly. Keep knowledge repositories in a centralized, updatable location. Ensure no one person holds information in their head that could cause your venture to fail. Keep knowledge repositories current so new team members can get up to speed quickly.


8. “…I’m kind of like lukewarm water….”

With David St. Hubins and Nigel Tufnel as the most prominent members of the band, Derek Smalls had to figure out his role on the bass. In this clip he recognizes that not everyone can be the frontman in the group and that his role is to live somewhere between these two spotlight-seekers. What he also realizes is that this role is fluid and morphs from song to song as the band evolves. Sometimes he’s closer to the front, where in other situations he has to hang back and drive the groove.

You too need to recognize your role on the team and ensure you’re giving enough support to the current person who needs it the most. Sometimes, you’ll be that front person, but if you’re not ensure that you’re adjusting your role to support the rest of the team. This will require you to be aware of everything that’s happening and utilize various aspects of your skills as appropriate.


9. “..St. Hubins…the patron saint of quality footwear…”

David St. Hubins struggles to make his last name meaningful in this clip until he realizes he can just, essentially, say whatever he wants. And so he does attributing his last name to be the patron saint of quality footwear. While this may sound ridiculous what David has done in this scene is give his name a label that means something to his audience.

You need to do the same with your product. The product may, like David, not currently live up to the hype of the attributes you assign to it but it gives you an opportunity to test those aspirations with your target audience. If they like it, you now have clear targets to shoot for. If they don’t, you can adjust your marketing to convey a more meaningful message.


10. The review for “Shark Sandwich” was merely a two-word review which simply read “Shit Sandwich”.

The band’s record got panned by the press. They were crushed.

The reality is that you’ll always have your critics and naysayers. Take them for what they are – a sanity check and a source of criticism. Ensure you’re product is addressing the valid critiques and move on from there. Don’t spend too much wallowing in the sadness of bad reviews. There will always be some. Learn from them and move on.


11. “These go to 11.”

In what has become the most widely known and most classic scene in the movie, Nigel tells Rob Reiner that his amps go “one louder” by having dials that go to 11.  This, on its own in Nigel’s opinion, makes them a better band then the rest of the hard rock scene.

What Nigel is actually saying is that his passion for his music can’t be contained by an amp that goes to 10. He needs one more than that to be truly understood. This holds true for your passion for your work. Are you satisfied with going to 10? Or should you always be gunning for 11? The answer of course is that if you want your product to succeed, you should always be pushing for 11, spending the time and effort necessary to ensure your product’s success.

This Is Spinal Tap may seem dated to those watching it for the first time but, as it turns out, it was ahead of its time with its pearls of entrepreneurial wisdom.


P.S. – I had a lot of fun with this post.

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