Don’t Let Your Ego Drive Product Development
Too many times I've heard this: “I know what the customer wants.”
Immediately, my brow furrows a bit, as I press for more answers. Usually, at this point, I ask, “How do you know?”
What happens next tells you a good deal about the maturity of the product development practice you’re dealing with. Unfortunately, for most folks, the answer here is the wrong one.
In my 13 years in technology, I’ve heard the wrong answer over and over again. It’s usually some form of “We just know.” You can translate that answer into the truth, which is that the team has an ego problem.
When teams tell me this, I often imagine a tape playing in their heads that sounds something like this: “That’s why I was hired/founded the company. I’m here because I know what the customer wants. Why else would I be here as a [insert role here]? I’m here because I have a good feel for what the customer wants.”
Sorry to break it to you — whatever you do, that isn’t what you’re here for. You’re not an intuition machine with infallible judgment. The goal of any company is to use the tools and people it has to make great products that drive profits. That’s how you win customers, and it’s how you’ll keep them.
Unfortunately, plenty of teams don’t take this tack. They believe everyone is there because of what they, and they alone, innately know. This attitude is extremely limiting to the work we need to do as product managers.
I firmly believe that one cannot think and know at the same time. Once you’ve decided you know something, you’re shutting yourself off to engaging with the topic further. When it comes to product development, though, there is no way to truly know things. Not even a team doing all the research it could possibly do knows the right answer. It doesn’t exist. When you say “I know,” you’re just closing the door on a whole host of possibilities.
There are just too many options and complexities for a right answer to exist. Think of product management like calculus: There are many possible answers, not just one. If you’re focused on knowing a so-called right answer, you aren’t doing any type of user-centered development.
Instead, you’re engaging in ego-driven development. This leads teams to waste a lot of time building things the customer doesn’t need, leaving the customer unsatisfied and the company with a bunch of undue overhead from products they don’t need to carry. Worse, you’re hampering your team’s ability to do great work. The best product development teams focus on learning. If you aren’t thinking about the customer, then you’re robbing your team from doing just that.
Where Does Ego-Driven Development Come From?
Well, like all things, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Here, the problem begins with taste. Taste is your innate sense about whether or not something works. The one thing about product management that you can’t teach is taste.
Before we go any further, I think it’s worth taking a moment to say that taste is what got you into whatever you’re doing. It’s an important piece of the puzzle. As a beginner, it’s all you have. As you gather more experience, you begin to close the gap between your taste and your ability to create new things. Ira Glass makes a good point on this subject.
Your current job, your next job and your ultimate legacy in this business are all built on that taste. It’s the thing that makes things happen. And that’s good. You need to have taste!
So, clearly, taste is important. When it goes too far, though, you start to enter ego territory. We can’t afford to have our taste become a dictator. That’s when bias takes over and blinds us to better outcomes. When we do that, we’re not thinking about the user, but ourselves. That’s when we’re practicing ego-driven development.
Identifying Ego-Driven Development
So, now that we have a definition, how do you know when your team is operating from an ego-driven place?
In the introduction to this piece, I highlighted the difference between thinking and knowing. That’s where teams go wrong. They move their discussions from “thinking about the customer” to “knowing the customer.”
This can manifest itself in different ways:
- A lack of customer connection.
- Building fast and learning slow.
- Missing opportunities to reflect.
Let’s examine each of these issues and some ways to solve them.
A Lack of Customer Connection
When was the last time you talked to a customer?
I don’t mean talked at them to sell something, either; I mean to them. What are their hopes, dreams and the problems they’re facing? How does your customer intend to get closer to the hopes and dreams and away from the problems? Are they willing to invest? Are they ready to leave?
All of these questions are important to ask and give you guidance on how to think about the customer. When you talk to the customer regularly, you begin to mix your taste with an overall sense of their problems. That is where product development becomes powerful.
Building Fast and Learning Slow
Is your team’s mindset always focused on pushing ahead to the next sprint?
Whoa, there! What was the last thing we learned about the customer who’s using this product of ours? In fact, did it solve their problem? Is this worth continuing? Are we missing something in the market? What about our competitors?
If you are just building, and not investigating, not only are you missing out on getting to know the space your product holds, but you’re also underinformed about the marketplace as a whole.
The marketplace is constantly changing. So, if you aren’t building on your knowledge every time, your team begins to rely on luck. This means you can’t consistently ship good projects. You might get lucky once or twice, but you’ll eventually strike out.
Missing Opportunities to Reflect
How are we working right now?
It's vital that we look at what we are making, but it’s just as important to understand how we’re working together as a team. How is our team morale? Are we overworked? Are we bored? Are we stuck in a rut?
If you aren’t investigating yourself, how can you get better as a unit?
Your taste needs to get better too. If you can’t find alignment with the other people on your team, the distance between you, them, and the project grows, ultimately hampering your ability to ship good products.
Avoid Ego and Improve Your Products
Business is constantly evolving. Our customers are changing, and the problems around us are growing more complex. This requires getting out of our heads and paying attention. Ego-driven development isn’t going to help us keep up with the pace of change. Although an ego-driven process may make us feel better in the short term, it has disastrous long-term implications, up to and including kicking us out of the marketplace altogether.
That’s why it’s so important to check in on all of these factors. Doing so allows us to take our ego out of the equation and make good decisions.
Make things that matter. I can’t think of better work than that.