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A few years ago I was contacted by a product manager in crisis. His recently-released product was languishing, and he was racked with guilt. He told me that although he had put all of his efforts into making the product viable, he suspected in the early stages of development that it was not going to do well.
In essence, he pushed a stinker product to market against his better judgment, and he wound up with a failing product on his hands. To make matters worse, the company he worked for was struggling, and he feared that it would cave under the financial strain of the failure. When I asked him why he didn’t pull the plug early in the process, he couldn’t come up with a cogent explanation.
I wish his story was a one-off, but unfortunately I think it is symptomatic of a bigger issue.
The stories have varied, but they all fit the same pattern: a product manager launching a product despite its fallibility. Some product managers even confess to loading up on unnecessary features to compensate for a product’s flaws, resulting in additional time and money wasted on a product that was D.O.A.
Some product managers even confess to loading up on unnecessary features to compensate for a product’s flaws, resulting in additional time and money wasted on a product that was D.O.A.
At first I was baffled by the trend. The product managers’ behavior defied the business logic and common sense. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to suggest that I understand why the product managers acted so irrationally, but I have developed some insights.
The sunk cost fallacy: that development just continued because of organizational momentum and “what the heck, we spent all this money – we just have to finish.” Sound reasoning? Probably not. Here are some of the reasons why some of these products that shouldn’t go to market, get there anyway:
The emotional crutch: People who work in business like to believe that they make unbiased, coolly analytical decisions. In reality, emotions are often at play, especially when a product is in development for months or even years. Product managers, as well as their colleagues and bosses, develop emotional attachments to products. It is completely natural. A product is like a child conceived by a product manager and reared by a village of engineers, designers, and marketers. The love it breeds is unconditional. The product team supports the product even when it disappoints, or fails to meet expectations, or proves itself unfit for the real world. The product manager nurtures the product even if he develops the sneaking feeling that it’s a bad egg. The engineers, designers, and marketers encourage his deluded attitude because they feel proud of their individual contributions to the product. If someone does feel concerned about the product’s prospects, he is unlikely to say something because speaking up goes against the ethos of corporate culture.
When everything comes down to performance numbers and reputation, employees become fixated on protecting their reputations, which influences decision-making.
Survival and self-preservation: In the sink or swim world of the corporate workplace, employees tend to be very concerned with self-preservation. On some level it’s only natural; self-interest is the most basic of human instincts. However, self-protective mentalities get exacerbated by companies that propagate very narrow definitions of success and failure. When everything comes down to performance numbers and reputation, employees become fixated on protecting their reputations, which influences decision-making. No one wants to look bad. No one wants to admit to misallocating company resources. Every little choice feels make-it-or-break-it, so employees avoid risk.
Risk aversion: As any business school professor will tell you, risk aversion can be very bad for business. An anxious product manager is less likely to bet big on a truly innovative product, and he is also less likely to jettison a product that isn’t working.
It’s not hard to see how all of these different elements can cloud judgment, resulting in critical errors. When everyone’s primary concern is protecting their own interests, no one focuses on what’s best for the company.
I may have painted a disturbing portrait of corporate dysfunction, but I believe there is hope. Over the years we have trained product managers to use dynamic decision-making to manage risk and better assess new products. By adopting new strategies product managers can learn to make better business decisions, and companies can improve their odds for success.
What do you think? Are your product managers killing project mid-stream when they don’t make sense?