The Could Versus Should Trap

Quick Summary: Creeping feature requests can easily add undue complexity and lengthen the time to market.


New ideas and product requirements will, left unchecked, tend to increase without bound.  With each proposed new enhancement or different opportunity, one fundamental question must be answered: although we COULD do this, SHOULD we?   A product manager focused on both the short-term and long-term success of the company should be empowered to make the many “could versus should” decisions.

As an entrepreneur formulates their idea or as a company begins to develop a new product, often the application possibilities seem almost limitless.  It is easy to envision its acceptance by the total imaginable market.  As the product or service becomes better defined and others are exposed to its potential, even a grander scope can emerge through the suggestions of others.  Complementary or off-shoot businesses may also be possible and appear to be quite interesting.   Left unchecked, these plans lead to the “Could Do Versus Should Do” Trap.

This trap invariably causes a company to lose focus on obtaining external validation of the basic concept.  Instead, requirements increase, almost without bound, resulting in the addition of more and more complexity. The added complexity usually leads to a delay in getting the product or service to market and obtaining real-world feedback.  The solution is very simple, but not easy.  It involves saying “no” or “not now” to the larger, more expansive solution.  In theory, saying “no” appears to be an obvious answer to feature creep.  However, when confronted with the presumed consequences of not addressing some portion of the market, it is easy to fall into the trap of making an exception “just this one time.”  Invariably, the “just this one-time” decision happens more and more, blurring the line between “could” and “should.”

Investors run across this problem regularly.  Often it is termed as a lack of focus, and it leads to market entry delays, dispersion of resources, confusing messaging, and the death knell caused by the lack of revenue or running out of money.

In the last several years, the concept of the Lean Startup has become popular.  This concept involves the delivery of the minimum acceptable product to the marketplace to obtain actual customer feedback.  Until that occurs, all an entrepreneur or company can do is speculate about actual customer wants and needs.  Instead of focusing on the market, the focus should be on a market.  The initial market segment does not have to be the long-term primary market.  In fact, there are many advantages to pursuing an ancillary market first.  This approach would limit the possibility of making a false step and jeopardizing the first impressions of the initial wave of the primary market customers if the basic assumptions are not correct.

The “could versus should” pressure often comes from two opposite areas within an organization.  Individuals that have direct prospect interaction naturally will want to offer products or services that appeal to the widest potential array of prospects that they can imagine.   Often, their “must have” feature set includes every feature that every actual and would-be competitor offers.  Their absolute minimum is a super-set of everyone else.  At the other end of the spectrum are the product or service developers who can create features and functions that they think might be appropriate or are elegant additions to their creations.  Their mantra is “good enough is never good enough, we can do more.”  The entrepreneur or CEO, based upon their background, can easily fall into either camp.  Worse, they can compromise and agree to the requests from both groups.

A highly effective solution to resolving the “could versus should” dilemma is to rely on a Product Manager.  This person, arguably the most important person in the entire organization (including the entrepreneur and CEO), can be the objective arbitrator when these situations arise.  Their criteria are simple: they need to objectively determine what is in the best interest of the business to meet the identified company goals now while consciously not unduly eliminating options in the future.  The key part of this criterion is “now.”  As has been pointed out in other articles in this series and is the First Principle of this entire series, staying in business must be the single most important consideration that a company can make.  Obtaining external customer validation quickly is the first step along the path.

The second part of the criteria, “while consciously not unduly limiting future options,” is intended to take into account potential directions that the product or service might take to build a sustainable long-term business.  These decisions can impact the entire spectrum of the product or service.  Such things as not agreeing to an all-market, long-term exclusive distribution arrangement or taking into account potential international requirements, or using a flat file data structure instead of a relational database are issues that may have no consequences now, but could severely limit the company in the future.

If they are doing their job effectively, a product manager, due to their emphasis of what “should” be done instead of what “could” be done, will probably be equally unpopular with both sales-focused and development-focused individuals in the company.  Their job satisfaction will come from their ability to help keep the company in business today with a bright future for tomorrow.  Contrary to the popular notion that “the customer is always right,” a product manager must look beyond what a customer or marketing study indicates and make business decisions that are in line with the business.  Similarly, a product manager must balance the desire for engineering elegance and practical solutions.  The article, 6.030304, “Fitness for Use Decisions,” lists thirty different characteristics that are used to define quality.  A product manager needs to objectively rank order these characteristics based on their business sense, given the current state of the company and the development effort.  Their view and priorities will be markedly different than those of sales or engineering teams.

There is one situation in which the lack of effective product management will almost always doom a company.  It occurs when outsourced development resources are used.  The outcome is easily predictable.  The result is independent of the competence and capability of the outsourced partner.  That partner, whether they are across town or on a different continent, cannot possibly be as close to the company’s prospects as the company is.  Without thorough product requirements documents and near constant interaction, outside developers will continue to develop, filling in the blanks and making assumptions as they move forward.  One of the lyrics of a Harry Chapin song is, “Empty spaces always ask filling.”  Developers have no choice but to fill any empty spaces that they encounter.  Best intentions do not count!  There are subtle design choices that developers make daily.  Without a thorough understanding of the underlying reasons behind the requirements or understanding the trade-offs that a company makes in deciding what to do and what not to do, an outside developer is at a distinct disadvantage.

The article, 6.020201, “Butterflies and Development,” in the Development chapter of this collection, further explains the need for effective product management.  There are few things in business that are as certain as the chances of failure when product management is not adequately in place, and outsourced development is used.  Without their heavy involvement, the Minimum Viable Product may work, but the chances are good that the MVP will have to be scrapped.  After that occurs, and if there is enough time and money available, the product management approach will then be followed.  Unfortunately, enough time and money are rarely available!

Asking a developer or a sales-oriented individual to take on product management as a part-time extension of their current responsibilities is not an effective alternative.  Consciously or unconsciously, they will favor their discipline and not maintain an objective balance considering short-term and long-term success.

The Fram oil filter commercial of a few years ago included the statement, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later” is directly applicable to neglecting or using product management.  Unfortunately, the “pay later” option may not exist for some companies.


Article Number : 3.040302   

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