Do you find yourself continually diverted from your product’s itinerary to delve into your boss’s new favorite subject? Are you having to explain why your product’s not using blockchain or the Internet of Things or artificial intelligence? Does your management team appear to occasionally have the attention span of a fruit fly in a farmers market?

You’re probably dealing with leadership suffering from shiny object syndrome. But don’t worry, there are preventative treatments and recommended procedures for handling the side effects. Let’s slather on some hand sanitizer and dig into this.

What is “Shiny Object Syndrome?”

Shiny object syndrome (SOS) is a continual state of distraction brought on by an ongoing belief that there is something new worth pursuing. It often comes at the expense of what’s already planned or underway. It’s rooted in that childhood phenomenon of always wanting a new toy, even if your current toy is just fine.

In business, this trait can be downright disruptive— and not in a good way. When SOS sets in, it creates a cascade of chaos, unleashing all sorts of problems for the product team.

  • Wild goose chases: When a new idea gets a bit of momentum, the product team is always tasked with research and assessing its viability. While they can likely rule out many of these ideas initially, their theoretical upside demand a thorough investigation and analysis. It chews up product management’s time and distracts other people from focusing on what’s already in the works.
  • Sowing doubts: The most important part of a strategy is getting buy-in and following through on execution. But shiny object syndrome introduces uncertainty into the organization. When folks start questioning whether the current plans will be scrapped for something new, they’re less likely to put in as much quality effort and adhere to strict deadlines.
  • Diverting technical resources: Inevitably, many of these shiny object investigations require a technical assessment of their viability and impact. It means pulling valuable resources away from implementation so they can vet whatever the latest and greatest idea may be.

When you add that all up, it equals a total disruption of momentum and morale. Far too often, shiny object syndrome comes from the highest reaches of the organization.

Executive-level SOS

Senior management is both most susceptible to SOS and the most dangerous when they catch it. When a rank-and-file employee thinks something is cool or worth checking out, people generally don’t overreact. In fact, it may not get any attention at all. But when the people at the top of the food chain get excited, it generates action and commands resources.

Executives are furthest from the customers and the product itself. Many spend most of their time looking outside the organization. They don’t always have the same drive and commitment to the current strategy as the product team. Oftentimes, they’re still worried about what’s next and dabble in different domains to “keep up with things.” Plus, they’re always hungry for an easy fix when the road gets bumpy.

All it takes is for someone to read an article in the Wall Street Journal, attend an industry event, or get a board member mentioning something. Suddenly the focus shifts from known quantities and well-planned initiatives to chasing some new hot thing.

Because of their stature within the organization, an SOS flare-up results in fire drills, special projects, and other tumultuous activities. Employees feel obligated to follow through with these tasks, even though it falls outside the overall strategy and plan. The switching costs alone can do serious damage to productivity and morale, not to mention it can cause an uproar in the internal political order.

Preparing for Shiny Object Syndrome

There’s value in checking out whether something that just appeared on the radar could have significant potential ramifications for the business. Whether it’s a new technology, a feature that a competitor has sprung on the market, or a new trend taking the world by storm, it’s appropriate to assess the potential value (or threat) to the product.

No one wants to miss the next social media or security protocol that’s poised to take the world by storm. But this evaluation shouldn’t come at the expense of implementing the previously agreed-upon strategy. If every plan is only viewed as permanent until the next shiny object catches someone’s eye, it will wreak havoc on the entire operation.

To avoid these strategic detours, organizations should establish some ground rules and processes for mitigating the impact shiny object syndrome might have on the company while still doing some proper due diligence.

Establish, define, and enforce feedback channels

One reason SOS can lead to problems is that whomever it strikes gets excited about the object in question and can’t stop talking about it. In their mind, there is real, legitimate urgency to the matter, so they fire off emails, corner people in the halls, and call meetings to make sure they are treated seriously.

While there’s no foolproof way to guarantee someone won’t pull others into their SOS vortex, creating some process around vetting new opportunities can rein things in a bit. Having clear steps for suggesting something new, considering its merits, and going through proper prioritization lets everyone know their cool new thing will get its chance to prove its worth without jumping the queue.

Set expectations

It’s hard to put a damper on someone’s enthusiasm without coming off negatively. Whoever brought up the exciting new shiny object is going to have personal feelings about how things proceed once they bring it up.

By defining some clear parameters around the product roadmap process and its purpose, you can corral some of the emotion and reset the tenor of the topic. Roadmaps are the plan to turn strategy into reality. The strategy is the output of lengthy and extensive conversations, negotiations, prioritizations, and horsetrading. It’s all designed to bring a product to market that helps the organization achieve its goals.

Teams must run every idea through the same process to ensure it’s properly and thoroughly considered. While it’s not impossible for a late-coming development to impact and shift the roadmap’s priorities, those changes can’t be made lightly because there are other consequences and impacts on the organization’s goals to consider.

Use the roadmap to refocus

“Hey, stop staring at that thing and focus on this highly complex plan for world domination that we spent months figuring out” may not fly with your superiors. Still, your roadmap can help limit the amount of rubbernecking occurring. Frequently updating, socializing, and evangelizing the merits of the roadmap will keep the current, adopted strategy top of mind and all the stakeholders aligned.

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It might not stop shiny objects from making an appearance. Still, if everyone becomes familiar with the roadmap, they should, at a minimum, be able to view this new development within that larger context. All prioritization is a tradeoff, so spending time on that shiny object means something else must get bumped.

Reinforce the “why”

If you’ve built a roadmap based on themes, goals, and desired outcomes, you’ve already done the hard work of creating a plan that conveys context and purpose. Unlike a bunch of dates and seemingly interchangeable features, a theme-based roadmap communicated “why” you’re doing things instead of just focusing on “what” you’re doing.

If the shiny object fits into the “why” then it might be relevant. However, if it emphasizes things that don’t line up with the organizational goals of the moment, it should be easy to shift it into the “under consideration” bucket and off your plate for now. Use a roadmap view that keeps the focus on what’s relevant to your core audience.

Undoing the Damage

If SOS has already run rampant in your organization, it may call for a different course of action. Instead of stopping the outbreak, you’ve got to deal with symptoms:

  • Point out the problems: One reason people are attracted to shiny objects is that their shininess hasn’t worn off yet. Shine a spotlight on the “it thing” of the moment,. That way, product management can quickly showcase the flaws and drawbacks that others haven’t thought of yet.
  • Go back to goals: Constantly reminding leadership of how the current roadmap achieves organizational goals can be helpful. Unless someone can make a case that the shiny object will somehow accelerate or simplify that process, it can at least buy you some time.
  • Emphasize the cost of delay: Every moment spent on a shiny new object means something already determined as valuable isn’t moving forward. There are plenty of reasons why putting things off can backfire in a big way.
  • Highlight how close you are to the finish line: Unless you’re still at the drawing board stage of the product life cycle, you’re undoubtedly closer to shipping what’s already in progress than something newly discovered and unscoped. Promise to give the shiny object a fair shake AFTER you complete what’s already in the pipeline. A little time to simmer might also bring some more sanity and perspective to the evaluation.
  • Take pride in your plans: The roadmap and the strategy, goals, and objectives behind it didn’t happen overnight. The organization spent a lot of time and energy coming up with something everyone was excited about and believed in. It deserves a chance to play out and prove its worth.

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