We co-founded Prodify, a product management advisory firm. We also wrote the best-selling book, Build What Matters.
We see hard-working product teams struggling all the time, even under the best of conditions. Often, it’s not due to a deficiency or lack of skill within the team. Rather, the team has fallen into one—or more—of the most common dysfunctions in product management.
These dysfunctions are so prevalent that almost everyone who has worked in product management will have struggled with them at one point or another. That makes it even more important to understand what these dysfunctions are, so you can avoid them.
Here are the top ten dysfunctions in product management from our perspective.
Dysfunction #1: The Hamster Wheel—A Focus on Output Over Outcomes
On a hamster wheel, all that matters is continuing to run, even though you’re not getting anywhere. Similarly, sometimes product teams are almost entirely focused on output—hitting deadlines—with little regard for the outcome.
Compare these two questions, and you’ll see the difference in perspective.
- Did you ship that feature on time? (output-oriented)
- Did that feature deliver value to customers and grow revenue? (outcome-oriented)
What’s the use of shipping a feature on time if no customer wants or is willing to pay for it?
To escape the hamster wheel, focus on outcomes, not outputs.
Dysfunction #2: The Counting House—An Obsession with Internal Metrics
In the counting house, the focus is entirely on internal metrics with no regard for customer success. Many product teams become obsessed with internal metrics like revenue growth, monthly active users, and customer retention.
The truth is, most internal metrics are trailing indicators of a product’s success, and therefore shouldn’t be the primary focus of product management.
It’s far better to answer the question, “How can we effectively deliver greater value to our customers?” If you can answer that question and create a good business model around the answer, your internal metrics will almost always follow suit.
Dysfunction #3: The Ivory Tower—A Lack of Customer Research
In the ivory tower, product teams become so removed, so far above, the customers that they start thinking they know their customers better than the customers know themselves. Consequently, they never really talk to their customers, which means they risk building a product no one wants or needs.
This can also lead to mistrust between product management and other departments. Product management feels like they’re building the right product (though they may not be), so when the product doesn’t perform well, they assume the fault lies elsewhere.
The ivory tower is a trap. Stay on the ground with your customers.
Dysfunction #4: The Science Lab—Optimization to the Exclusion of All Else
In the science lab, product teams tend to focus all of their efforts on highly measurable yet superficial improvements to their product. Collectively, these small-scale optimizations don’t do much to innovate or add customer value.
For more and more companies, optimization has become the be-all and end-all rather than a facet of a balanced product development roadmap. The assumption is that making improvements to existing solutions is the one thing that will drive results, but even effective optimizations can’t take the place of real innovation.
Sometimes you need new solutions, not optimizations.
Dysfunction #5: The Feature Factory—An Assembly Line of Features
What does a feature factory build? Features. When is a feature factory done building features? Never.
That’s the problem with being a feature factory: there’s always the next feature to build. Product teams fall into this trap because they are led to believe by customers or internal stakeholders that if they just had this one next feature, they will close incremental deals or keep customers who might otherwise leave.
Sometimes, it works out that way, but more often than not, the team discovers that yet another feature is also needed. At some point, you need to break the cycle.
Dysfunction #6: The Business School—The Overuse of Science and Data
Business school is where you go to analyze business but not to actually do business. Similarly, product teams can get so wrapped up in overanalyzing everything that they avoid making tough but essential judgment calls.
Some product managers will meticulously calculate return on investment (ROI) analyses to decide which features to pursue. With this approach, no product decisions are being made at all. Typically, it’s simply the lowest-effort improvements that end up above the cutline.
To make strategic decisions, you must consider the customers and the larger business strategy, not just mathematically calculated ROIs.
Dysfunction #7: The Roller Coaster—Fast-Paced Twists and Turns
A roller coaster is all about fast thrills and wild, whiplashing movements. In product management, investors and executives like to see immediate results, and when those results don’t materialize right away, they can be tempted to pivot suddenly, creating roller-coaster whiplash.
You need to be patient and provide sufficient opportunity for success. Otherwise, you’ll get false negatives, where a feature that is truly a good idea fails because there wasn’t time to properly execute it.
Daisy-chained together, these false negatives result in a headache-inducing roller coaster ride for product development that ends up in exactly the same place it started.
Dysfunction #8: The Bridge to Nowhere—Over-Engineering for Future Unknowns
Imagine if a team of engineers designed and constructed a bridge over a river to connect a city to a wilderness area where another city might someday exist. They invest a tremendous amount of time, money, and resources, and then the second city never gets built. What a waste!
That’s what happens with many product teams. They get excited about developing the infrastructure to get the product just right and then end up overengineering a product, trying to account for future needs that aren’t relevant—and may never be.
Focus on current needs. In the future, you can always adjust.
Dysfunction #9: The Negotiating Table—Trying to Keep Everyone Happy
Sometimes, product meetings can turn into a negotiating table, as the product manager tries to give everyone what they want.
Product managers often believe that success means keeping all of their stakeholders happy—or, at least, minimizing their unhappiness—but when teams and individuals throughout the organization collectively want more than engineering can potentially deliver, this becomes practically impossible.
It’s not your job to give everyone what they want. Your job is to give customers what they want. When you prioritize the right things for the customer, you help every team, whether those teams realize it or not.
Dysfunction #10: The Throne Room—Whipsaw Decision-Making from the Person in Charge
Sometimes, the founder or CEO just can’t let go, and they morph from CEO to king or queen in a throne room. They make and override decisions on anything and everything, sometimes without even offering rationale.
In these situations, the CEO typically fails to drive alignment around the product direction, so no one really understands what they’re doing or why.
It’s an impossible situation for a product team that prevents the scaling of the company beyond a single decision-maker. For the most effective product management, the product team needs the ability to call their own shots.
This article was adapted from the book, Build What Matters, written by Ben Foster and Rajesh Nerlikar.
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