The conformity trap for product managers

Avoiding common product management pitfalls

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to manage and coach product managers with varying degrees of experience. Regardless of whether they are fresh in the field or have years of product management experience, there is a pattern that often emerges.

For newer PMs, the thrill of shipping features induces a rush of adrenaline, so they continue to take the lead from more seasoned PMs and rationalize new features using superficial justifications. The more experienced PMs that they look up-to know better than to use surface-level reasoning for new features. Still, they have fallen into the trap of conformity because the company has always operated that way.

Here are some examples of those pitfalls that often limit a product manager's creativity and growth:

The competitor just released the feature, and we should copy it!

If you build a feature only because the competitor has it, it would be an obvious tell that you don't have a robust product strategy. More to the point, though, it is essential to understand that the competition is always operating under a different context. They could be focusing on different geographical regions, different market segments, their business model is different, or the owners' motivations are different. Without having a grasp of the nuances, you're taking the leap of faith that the feature will resonate with your product’s market. Additionally, you're assuming that the competitor didn't make a mistake and isn’t spending time trying to figure out how to kill that feature in their own product.

If you're not convinced, check out Peter Thiel's thoughts on how competition is for losers.

The technology is trending, and we need to get in now. First Mover Advantage!

If you adopt new technology just because there's a lot of hype, you can find yourself with remarkable technology to talk about but not deliver real business value. Staying current with technology trends is necessary, but only if it helps solve your market's needs.

To help temper your optimism, consider Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging technologies. New technologies will generally go through the "Trough of Disillusionment" and should give you a reason for pause.

The customer said it's important and they know others in the market who would want it too

Sometimes you'll have to build features because a customer asked for it. It's a fact of product management, but you should do it with eyes wide open. Customer feedback is valuable, but you need to discern whether their requests have broad market applicability or whether the feature brings you closer to being a bespoke solution that only a handful of power users will use.

Leveraging insights from competitors, the technology landscape, and customers is essential. Still, it's necessary to understand that they are a subset of the inputs you need to synthesize to develop a robust product strategy and roadmap. If you choose to build everything, you'll likely end up with a hodgepodge of cool features that don't have market fit.

Next time you want to build something, take a moment, and ask yourself a few questions to evaluate whether the feature you want to develop should pass the first gate:

  1. Does the feature solve a market problem? For any commercial software product manager, a primary decision criterion is whether the feature solves a market problem. 

  2. Does it align with your corporate objectives? If it does align with your organizational goals, is it on the roadmap? If not, is there enough justification for incorporating it into your roadmap?

  3. Does your company have the skill sets to build it? This is particularly important in the context of new technology. If you don't have the competencies in-house can you outsource?

These questions are a starting point for evaluation. Depending on your situation, you may need to consider other factors. The key takeaway is that it’s essential to layer in discipline into your product management mindset.