Product Managers: Learn to Let Go

Jim Semick
Co-founder, Board Member at ProductPlan

Let go of whats not working | ProductPlan

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of something after discovering it no longer works as you expect. Especially if it’s something you were passionate about. All of us, especially product managers and entrepreneurs, are faced with this occasionally.

For example, you’ve put a sprint of development effort into a new feature, and the team has now discovered new information that doubles their estimate of effort. Your Value vs. Effort estimates are out the window, and you’re now questioning whether to proceed.

You believed in this feature so much and put so much time, customer interviews, UX work, and now a full sprint of effort into the feature. It’s, well, just hard to let go.

I’m here to splash some cold water on you and tell you that all the work and energy you and your team put into this doesn’t matter.

What’s done is done, and the only thing that matters is future costs. 

An essentialist product manager knows this – they know that goals, objectives, markets, and development estimates change.

I’m not suggesting that you abandon every project, feature, or idea that turns out to be more difficult than expected. Successful product managers and entrepreneurs know when to persevere despite headwinds.

I am saying that the equation has changed, and you need to re-evaluate whether it’s still the right thing to work on. If you say ‘Yes’ to continue to work on this new feature I described at the beginning of the article, you’re saying ‘No’ to other opportunities that might yield better results.

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The Sunk Cost Fallacy

A few years ago, I learned about the concept of the sunk cost fallacy, the mental errors we make when deciding to continue with a project, investment, or even a relationship long after it’s become clear it’s no longer working for us.

In sunk cost theory, we will often decide to stay with something because we’ve put time or resources into it. We believe that because we have “sunk” that cost into it, we somehow need to recoup it. That’s a fallacy.

In a sense, you’re “throwing good money after bad.”

In Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, demonstrated that we choose options to avoid loss. We don’t behave logically when presented with the same choice framed in different ways.

Think of a purchase you made a few years ago that you no longer like, but continue to use because you’ve already paid for it. You don’t want the money to go to waste after all. This is the sunk cost fallacy in action.

The way to avoid the sunk cost trap is to think about how you feel about that purchase today. I think a great way of thinking is Marie Kondo’s approach to decluttering. She places past purchases on the floor and then asks whether an item “sparks joy.” If not, it’s time to donate it or trash it.

The fact that you invested money in the past is no longer relevant in the decision.

For product managers, sunk cost theory means that sometimes logic dictates that you stop working on something you’ve invested considerable time and energy into. It might mean that it’s time to sunset a feature or entire product if it is no longer achieving its objectives.

I know these decisions to abandon a project are hard. A few years ago, I was faced with this decision on a new feature where I’ve invested a lot of passion and advanced work, and the development team had spent a lot of hours on coding. It was a complex feature. As we kept discovering new cases that had to be a part of the first release, it became clear that the development effort was going to be significantly higher than we expected.

It was in our best interest to stop developing that feature and work on something easier to develop and gave customers higher value. I learned lots of lessons about avoiding these situations, to begin with, but that didn’t make the decision any easier, especially when developers I had worked closely with had been putting in the extra effort.

Make Go / No-Go Decisions Based on Outcomes

It’s never crystal clear whether to stop working on a project or dive in further. One way to manage the inevitable uncertainty is to relax about the exact plan and instead make decisions based on an outcome-driven goal.

For example, rather than creating a list of arbitrary and disconnected features for your product, instead focus on what your desired outcome is for customers – what is the goal you want them to achieve? And are there alternatives that would help you more easily accomplish that goal?

By focusing on an outcome-driven roadmap, you (and your team) have room to think about new possibilities, about different and possibly faster ways of achieving the goal. Again, the effort you have already invested rarely matters in that decision.

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Revisit Prioritization

When the equation changes (either the effort you need to exert or the outcome you expect has changed), it’s OK to revisit your priorities and evaluate whether you’re working on the right things.

If you use a roadmap prioritization framework such as ProductPlan’s Planning Board, you can use the weighted scoring model to re-score the project against other items in your product backlog. Product managers know that it’s acceptable to re-evaluate opportunities (and work in progress) to assess if the roadmap still has the right priorities.

Does this sound familiar? As a product manager, you’ve finally got a groomed backlog that aligns with the product vision and roadmap. Teams are cranking away and delivering. Everything is on track and then it happens—some unplanned work pops up that is deemed URGENT by someone outside your department. All eyes are on you to set the priority—do you have the tools to do it?[/caption]

Focus on today (and maybe a few sprints out).

Product managers expect to spell out our products’ vision, and the product looks like one or two years down the road. But it’s problematic if this planning is too detailed. One or two years out, any plan is only a fantasy and a waste of time. This thinking can keep you too biased towards completing that plan, rather than asking if it’s the right thing to be working on.

There’s no way things will go exactly to plan, and the goalpost will probably change along the way. You’ll never achieve perfection. Unfortunately, this detailed planning sets an expectation in your head (and your stakeholders’ heads) that won’t come true. It sets up everyone for disappointment.

My advice: Don’t plan too far ahead. Focus on the big picture vision in broad terms. Then, focus on what is in your control today to meet that vision. For your product planning, a few sprints out are far enough.

Embrace Uncertainty to Make it Less Stressful

In the past, I’ve wrestled with needing to control uncertainty. For years I thoroughly planned most everything and felt the need to know the eventual outcome of decisions. I spent a lot of time that, in the end, wasn’t necessary.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so I often found myself with a lingering sense that things were out of control. As a product manager, the uncertainty manifested in really detailed and lengthy Product Requirements Documents. I know I’m not the only product manager with this challenge. All of the research, time spent writing long documents, and time spent worrying were, well, non-essentialist.

Over the years, I’ve realized through observation and personal experience that the most successful and happy people are those who are willing to embrace uncertainty. They are the ones who make “risky” decisions without knowing 100% of the information. It’s especially true for product managers, entrepreneurs, and others who want to launch products or ideas.

I’m much better now about letting things unfold without needing to know how the plan eventually will materialize. And yes, I get the irony that I’m the co-founder of ProductPlan, software that helps product managers visualize their plan.

If we can stop for a moment and change our thinking that we’re not in as much control as we think and surrender to it, we’re more likely to succeed because we’re open to change and opportunities we wouldn’t see otherwise. And I’ve realized these opportunities somehow align with my most important goals.

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Learn More

To learn more about letting go of what’s not working and making a more meaningful contribution to your product management career, download my free book, The Essentialist Product Manager. This book blends my passions of essentialism and product management into ideas that you can bring into work and your life to make it all more fulfilling.

Download The Essentialist Product Manager ➜