The Uncertainty Axiom of Product Management
Developing digital products is inherently risky. Big software projects face delays, explode in cost, or get canceled all the time. Not just the effort involved in building the product is uncertain, though. More fundamentally, even the value itself is questionable. Consider the example of Quibi, the short form, mobile focused video subscription service launched to much fanfare in April, only to see disappointing download and engagement figures. Clearly, consumers did not find the offering particularly compelling and valuable, despite a lot of up front planning and big investments into the product.
This risk is also not limited to new products. Changes to existing products are affected as well. It frequently happens that product teams launch what they consider improvements to the product, only to see lack of user adoption, reduced engagement, or even backlash. What is happening here?
The fact of the matter is that digital product development is inseparable from this uncertainty. There are certain risks inherent to product development that can’t be removed, they have to be managed. At the heart of these risks lies the fundamental fact that it’s impossible to know in advance which of our ideas are good and which ones are bad — and the bad ideas outnumber the good ones. Marty Cagan, partner at Silicon Valley Product Group and author of the product management book “Inspired” calls this the inconvenient truth of product:
[A]t least half of our ideas are just not going to work [and] even with the ideas that do prove to be valuable, usable and feasible, it typically takes several iterations to get the implementation of this idea to the point where it actually delivers the expected business value.
There are many reasons why a product idea or product improvement idea may fail to deliver the hypothesized value to the customer or to the business. The most fundamental possible reason is that the problem that the product set out to solve simply doesn’t exist, or that the market isn’t big enough (which means that there might be some people with the problem the product is solving, but not enough). A variant of this is that there is a market, but you can’t acquire customers profitably. If…