Three diseases your product can catch (and how you can prevent them)

You’ve created a North Star that’s inspiring, audacious and yet achievable. You have a product strategy to execute against that North Star. You’re on the right path to building a Radical Product.

But, as you start navigating toward your goal, temptation sets in; you keep discovering use-cases and markets where you could have an impact, if only you built a few more features, or broadened your target segments a bit. This is where we often see good products go bad. Sometimes even when the vision is clear starting out, it gets foggy as you encounter too many shiny opportunities, diluting the focus you need to deliver cohesive products.

Here are the 3 most common product diseases that we encounter, along with their most common symptoms and the preventive actions you can take:

  1. Strategic Swelling:

Symptoms

Your product seems to do just about everything for everyone, and might even go fetch you a cup of coffee. When you’re not sure if a product idea adds value to your business, your approach is to err on the side of including it rather than aggressively prioritizing. As a result, maybe you’re complicating your UX, or you’ve created several different pricing models to try to appeal to a wide range of customers. Every part of your product strategy is susceptible to Strategic Swelling.

Prevention:

There are two easy steps to preventing this product disease:

Step 1. Create a clear vision: Without a clear vision or a common understanding across the company of the vision, you don’t have a North Star to evaluate strategic opportunities against. If you haven’t created a clear vision, start here.

Step 2. Evaluate product ideas for vision fit: Keeping a strong product focus requires pruning of both good and bad ideas. Evaluate options based on whether they fit your vision, as well as by the value they bring to the business. For example, when evaluating customer pain points to solve, ask: does solving this pain point take us closer to our end goal? Does it take our company closer to sustainability? . You should ask the same questions when evaluating high-level features, distribution models, pricing, and all other aspects of your product strategy.

While evaluating product ideas isn’t reducible to a simple formula, we’ve created a simple rubric to help you frame this discussion for your team. Before you fill out each row of your Product Strategy (Customer, Capabilities, Design and Delivery), put each idea into one of the four quadrants. For the Customer row, for example, a highly profitable customer whose pain point you are laser-focused on solving would appear in the upper right quadrant.. To summarize:

  • Items in the top right quadrant are those that most closely match your vision, as well as taking you closer to a sustainable business — this is obviously where you’d aim to spend most of your resources.
  • Items in the top left corner are a good vision fit, but might not be profitable in the near term. These can be worthwhile to pursue, but not if you’re facing a cash crunch.
  • Items in the bottom right corner are profitable, but a poor fit for your vision; pursuing them incurs “vision debt”, which can keep you afloat if necessary but ultimately will derail your efforts if too much is allowed to accumulate. Use vision debt wisely to get to your next milestone, but don’t let it build up over time.
  • Items in the bottom left are both a poor vision fit and are not likely to be profitable. Avoid pursuing anything down here!

While not a precise science by any means, this format provides the basis for a constructive discussion to align the team on the product strategy and is a good way of evaluating new opportunities.

2. OSD (Obsessive Sales Disorder):

Symptoms

If your engineers are telling you that your source tree is looking more like a source shrub because of all the customer-specific code branches you are maintaining, it’s a strong indicator your product team is afflicted with Obsessive Sales Disorder. Often the root cause is that the common advice that you need a “Customer Driven mindset” is misunderstood to mean “Customer Led” i.e. give customers everything they ask for. Examples of a Customer Led model are taking on custom features to win sales opportunities or continually building features for customers who demand them (regardless of whether those features are extensible to other customers).

Prevention:

  • Recognize vision debt. There may be times when you have to take on custom integrations to win that one client and make your numbers. But, if you’re not keeping track of this so that you can get back to your vision as quickly as possible, you may keep adding to your vision debt. As you do too many of these, you start to look more like a professional services company than a product company.
  • Understand new markets before entering them — We often see products getting Obsessive Sales Disorder when entering new markets — selling the same product into different use cases sounds attractive but the devil’s in the details. You discover after you get into a new market that it requires features that you hadn’t planned for to get the product work as promised. Unless you have clearly defined the user personas and observed the use case in action in the new vertical, don’t assume your product “just works” across verticals.

3. Pivotitis:

Symptoms

The only thing worse than getting bloated is being so “lean” that you disappear. Building products using the Lean Startup approach can be fast and exciting, but without a clear product vision or North Star it becomes far too easy to solve problems by “pivoting” away from them rather than pushing through. This often results in wild swings in your product offering and target customer segments, exhausting and confusing your team.

Prevention

  • Start fresh if you need to. “Pivoting” in basketball means keeping one foot still while moving the other foot freely. With this in mind, the famous “pivot” of Slack, going from gaming company to business chat product, starts looking a lot more like egregious traveling. Don’t be afraid to shed your connection to your past entirely if your vision doesn’t work out. Pivoting your HOW (i.e. your method for achieving your vision) is OK, but if your vision changes fundamentally, you don’t have a pivot on your hands — you have a whole new startup.
  • Measure what matters. It’s great to have a data-driven approach to product management, but not if you’re collecting the wrong data. Consider what leading indicators would show that you’re moving toward achieving your vision — it might not be something as simple as MAUs or Pirate Metrics. In a later post, we’ll go into details on how to align your analytics with your product vision.