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Avoiding Flawed Product Management Decisions

by Larry Bloom and Adam Bloom

In 2009, one of Amazon’s product management decisions sent a shiver down the spine of the Internet when it remotely deleted copies of allegedly unauthorized versions of the books “1984″ and “Animal Farm” from users’ Kindles. It invaded devices without permission and removed content which users had (at least to their knowledge) legally bought. CEO Jeff Bezos apologized: “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward.”

Bugs inside Amazon’s Product Management Decisions

It looks as if Amazon had two bugs. One, the “Kindle network” did not effectively control unauthorized versions of books. The second was with Amazon’s product management decisions – there was a bug in their mental software, a flaw in their thinking.  Many problems of corporations today are not the result of software bugs or other factors that occur outside our thinking, but rather they are “self-inflicted” as a result of mind-bugs—bugs in the critical internal processes that occur in the five inches between our ears.  According to 170+ pieces of research across psychology, neuroleadership, social cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and more, our human brains are hard-wired in a way that makes it challenging to formulate wise decisions under pressures faced at work.  Seemingly, Amazon had this type of buggy thinking based on Jeff Bezos comment.

Bad Product Management Decisions Hurt!

If you ask a product manager what they do, you might get a myriad of answers.  One of the best and simplest answers we’ve seen is from Saeed Khan, a successful 14-year product manager, speaker, and author of  Saeed says, “I make decisions. I make decisions for our company that help us make better products that we can sell to more people.”

A product manager spends a lot time making decisions, organizing decisions, recommending decisions, shepard-ing people through decisions, and communicating decisions.  They deal with decisions throughout the lifecycle of a product from inception to grave.  They gather information in support of decisions on product strategy, roadmaps, features, customers, competitors, internal resources, customer support needs, and more.  Importantly, they guide decisions across a large number of departments and at various levels of management.

As the Amazon example points out, product management decisions have a direct impact on customers, profits, revenues, costs, employees, reputations, and ultimately business success.  Product management decisions impact every department – sales, marketing, customer service, IT, supply chain, R&D, finance, legal, HR, and more.  As well, investors and boards make decisions based on the projected results of products in the marketplace.  Successful products generate cash while failed products unproductively consume valuable resources and can lead a business to ruin.  In the case of Amazon, bad decisions hurt customer satisfaction, eroded Amazon’s brand reputation, and potentially impacted revenue.

Do My Product Management Decisions have Mind-bugs?

If you are human, the answer is yes.  Bezos points out how smart leaders, managers, and employees can simply be “thoughtless”; that is, unaware of the huge negative impact of some of their decisions. The success of any organization is a function of the quality of the thinking done within it, and product managers are being paid specifically for their thinking and decision-making.  When Product Managers have mind-bugs:

  • They believe they have figured out the way things are—regardless of evidence to the contrary—and don’t grasp the contradictions between their view and reality.
  • They justify conclusions that serve their interests and develop skills of selective evidence-finding and debate.
  • They do not see the limitations in their own point of view and want to win arguments without examining whether there are problems with their own thoughts.
  • They place blame anywhere but with their own thinking, look back after the fact, and defend decisions with platitudes like: “I wish I knew then what I know now,” or “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

A group of smart people at Amazon clearly felt they had figured the way things are, justified conclusions, and missed limitations in their own point of view.  Perhaps they had bugs in their thinking.

Curing Stupid Product Management Decisions

The Cure for Corporate Stupidity can improve product management decisions by providing tools and approaches to understand, identify, and avoid mind-bugs. Out of the 20 mind-bugs covered in the book, the “Source Influence” mind-bug is a good example for product managers.  With this mind-bug, we accept information to be sufficient based on the source.  If the “source” is our biggest customer, boss, or CEO, and they say, “feature XYZ is the most important feature in this product,” we believe it is a true statement because of who said it – the source influenced us.  And, because of the source of the information, we never challenge the “truth.”  We are unable to think the information might be invalid, or we potentially and subconsciously fear conflict. Either way, it is a flaw in our thinking.  The Cure for Corporate Stupidity provides a method for avoiding such mind-bugs on your own or with co-workers.

While there is significant depth provided in the book, here are five questions that can help avoid mind-bugs in product management decisions right now:

  1. Have I considered how the personal stake or vested interest for each person or group involved influences this evaluation?
  2. Do I adequately understand how my own beliefs and desires color or influence any judgments or inferences I make?
  3. Have I reasonably considered if there are any critical gaps in the sufficiency of the information used to support our arguments?
  4. Am I completely confident that the data we are depending on is accurate?
  5. Should I continue with this decision if my answer is no to any of the first four questions?

We believe that if Jeff Bezos and the team at Amazon had asked these 5 questions, they would have avoided a solution to the problem that “was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. “

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