Product development doesn’t have to be narcissistic
I’ve been accused of being a narcissist before. Not in those exact words, but I will never forget the conversation. I was 25 and a good friend of mine and I were talking. She finally said (in a rare pause of my banter), “Natalie, you always talk about you and never ask about me.” Wow, that one hit hard and I felt guilty and ashamed. I had never thought about it before. I wondered where my baby-boomer parents had gone wrong in raising me as a millennial snowflake (who was nothing but extraordinary) who didn’t know the true definition of meaningful discourse. Ever since then, I’ve put a concerted effort into making sure that I ask the other person I’m talking to questions about themselves. It’s a constant reminder in my awkward conversational brain – “ask them about their day, weekend, year…yeah—that’s perfect!” We often run into a narcissism problem in product development, too, and it can stem from fear and shame.
As Brene Brown states in Daring Greatly, “when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” Wow, that sounds like a fear most product owners and managers have. What if we can’t be that next big startup, what if we can’t win…what if…And it’s fear that often makes us make poor decisions because we’re literally obsessed with our products and having them be the best.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t want our products to be successful or the best, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be personally invested in them. What I am saying, though, is we can’t expect every single product to cause a revolution like the truly stand-out ones do. That isn’t the market — if it was and every company got a participate trophy, well we’d be a communist or socialist and not capitalist economy. How many competitors are there for every product? And there’s usually a clear winner. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for other products and they aren’t necessary and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be narcissists about some things (ahem QUALITY).
When we focus on being the “best” and getting the next big thing out there only to quash the competition, we often forgo quality and forget about our customer – you know, the ones who are using the product and hopefully paying us. Instead of trying to be better we try to be the best – and then we (and our customers) end up worse off. We focus on solely on features that delight our customers at the expense of the basic features our customers need to even start to appreciate the delightful new features we’re racing to get out to market – to prove we are the best and most important product. And when this strategy inevitably doesn’t work, we feel ashamed and fearful we will be left behind. We can’t see how our narcissism is destroying our product and our strategy in turn and we forget to obsess over quality in our haste obsessing about being behind.
So what do we do about it? Let’s put a focus on quality above all. Let’s obsess over it and the incremental gains it will give us. Down the road when our other competitors keep focusing on the next best right now feature of the week to the detriment of quality and keeping up with their tech debt, that will be a chance to pull ahead. Yes, we may have missed the initial startup market window, but we remained a great competitor and then when the quality really started to matter as the products matured (and more importantly our customers got snobbier) it will be our chance to gain market share from the competition. Who wants the newest, greatest feature if it doesn’t work or if the experience to get there is poor?
Here’s the thing – customers don’t notice if you manage your quality and technical debt, but they do notice if you don’t. Also, those delightful features all too quickly become expected and if we race to get them out there and don’t do it well, when they become the baseline expectations and don’t work and scale we WILL lose more business. Customers who have a choice will not stand for it. So let’s take advantage of the companies that don’t know that and make our experience that much better. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:
Once you give something you can’t take it away. It’s like that in government programs and our everyday life. Ok, so maybe flying isn’t in your everyday life, but it is in mine. I fly so much that I get upgraded to first class on almost every flight. Many planes now have great amenities like wifi, video screens, and power outlets. Some only have these in certain classes but me being an “elite” doesn’t really know the difference. People who fly as much as me have come to expect it. I just saw a women get pretty upset (despite being upgraded to first class) that the outlets on the plane didn’t work so she couldn’t watch videos or send text messages during the TWO hour flight. Maybe that’s all she was looking forward to on the flight but wow. I mean just a year or two ago those were delighter features — now not as much, especially if it hasn’t been done well.
I like to think that isn’t me. Was I bummed I couldn’t charge my phone, sure. Do I buy wifi sometimes, yeah. But would I make enough of a fuss to make the flight attendants try to fix it for me instead of accepting that it just wasn’t happening – nope nope nope (and that’s not even their job). Yes, I am in first class a lot. I do start to expect it. But I still take the time to marvel at the fact that I’m moving at 500+ miles per hour and usually have the option to surf the net (albeit slower than on the ground). When things become expected it’s a whole different world and not working isn’t an option.
As I fly on different airlines, I see that these features are definitely different and there are clear winner airlines in amenities. But then again, why are there other airlines if they are all competing for number one? Because amenities are not the most important for all customers – for some it’s price, some it’s time, some it’s location etc and for all it’s quality (the plane not crashing is a table stake for flying). So if we are focused on “being the best” we truly need to know that we cannot be the best for every customer all the time because they expect different things but the expectation of quality is always high and we’re not forgiving about that.
Start with built-in quality narcissism and be the best there FIRST – because only then will we really be able to outshine our competitors and truly serve our customer’s most important needs.