Product obsession can be a significant barrier to sustaining your success.

Achieving initial success, while great, can sometimes be the most dangerous thing to experience as a product company. Realizing any success after a significant level of effort, time, and sacrifice can feel like a lifeline to companies and individuals who have invested so much personally into an idea. However, it can also lead to complacency and a false sense of confidence that this breakthrough justified all the decisions and activities that got you to this point. Now that you have launched the killer product, you can focus on making the product better and better, right?

A brilliant colleague of mine from the high-tech industry often says that his goal with any work product is to suck a little less each day. This has stuck with me for the past 20+ years because, while a bit crude, it is a very direct reminder that momentum and persistence is critical because you can always do better. I think anyone who takes that perspective will not let complacency or their ego become barriers to their success.

As I discussed in my previous post, sometimes we can be a little lucky, and that can lead us to overlook some significant shortcomings that can prevent our success from being sustainable. In this post, I want to discuss another learning I’ve seen from more mature companies that overcame that hurdle to achieve perpetual success. This scenario can be even more challenging to address because while initial success can lead to some false confidence that is often quickly exposed, sustained success can lead an entire company of very experienced and confident people to choose a status quo approach that is justified by historical data.

“Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results”

This is a phrase you may have read in the fine print of your 401k or financial advisor disclaimers. Still, it’s something every product organization needs to keep in mind as decisions and priorities are continuously made. When people are responsible for continuing a product’s successful track record, it can be very risky to question the status quo, much less be disruptive. However, there is significant risk in trusting the status quo or continuing to base decisions on the assumptions made in prior years. History provides us with many examples of companies that have done the latter:

Each of these companies has a story of how it failed to challenge its very successful status quo, but it often derives from how it treated its product. They did a very good job establishing, evolving, and growing their product over a number of years, so you could easily accept that they were industry leaders in being product-centric. You can also see that those very same products led to their downfall because somewhere along the way, they succumbed to product obsession.

Obsession is an interesting word that can be used in very different ways as either a good or bad thing. There are many perspectives and opinions across psychology (and the Internet) that speak to obsession being good when focused on good things and bad when focused on bad things. This would be simple if everything was either good or bad, but few objects are that binary. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to position that obsession is focusing so much on a specific item that you ignore all others and even go so far as to protect it at all costs. With this understanding, I think it becomes evident that the companies listed above fell into this trap. 

Indicators of Product Obsession

It may feel like this is much easier to diagnose in hindsight, but there are scenarios we can spot early to catch this behavior before it starts to impact the company. The following set are some that may help you identify early indications that your organization may be product obsessed.      

  • Feature sprawl to solve additional customer problems – expanding the capabilities of the product to service more customers and/or additional problems. Ensure this is aligned with the product vision and not better addressed as a separate product with the appropriate justification and support.  
  • Protecting the product – this is the sacred cow trap and can take a couple of different scenarios. One is investing significantly to maintain the status quo for an existing product. Teams will often classify this activity as technical debt, but this should require the same justification as new features. Another scenario is killing or limiting new products that might compromise an existing product. It is likely only a matter of time before another company develops that product.
  • Narrow definition focus – a very narrow definition of the product based on the initial design or approach may lead to a limited opportunity to provide value to customers and the company. Revisiting initial assumptions and/or boundaries of the product may help it to evolve.  
  • Company-driven roadmap – focusing on what the product does for the company vs. the value it is providing to customers. There is no better way to get outflanked by competitors.
  • Repeated course corrections – this can be caused by a lack of strategic alignment and/or teams making quick decisions without considering alternatives. This indicates that the product is possibly trying to satisfy too many goals or needs, and the company should either narrow its focus or consider additional products.

The proper scrutiny of these scenarios should help safeguard the organization from becoming product obsessed.  Establishing this perspective across the organization will pay dividends as your teams embrace the never-ending journey to evolve the product portfolio for the perpetual success of the business.  In the next post, I’ll talk about another method to protect yourself from falling into this trap... and a few others.  

Next Post: Your value proposition to customers is not a Product

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