A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked me to look at a company that he and some partners were thinking about buying. The company had a simple but solid product and strong user growth. The churn figures were concerning, but they had a plan for turning it around. You could do a lot worse than this company.

My main concern, I told my friend, was that he wasn’t a software guy and neither were his partners. When the founder moved on, how would they keep growing the business and make it better?

Not to worry, he said. The current team had a huge backlog of enhancement requests from the field that the new management team would work through.

I’m no one’s M&A expert, but told him he shouldn’t buy the company. A list of things customers want isn’t a product vision. Someone might well be able to make a lot of money from the company, but I didn’t think it could be them.

A Backlog of Enhancement Requests Is Not a Roadmap

One of the more common complaints heard among product managers, aside from not knowing what to build, is that they spend all their time responding to support tickets and feature requests from clients or the sales team.

Everyone spends time now and then servicing a really important client or clearing out a backlog of truly must-do enhancements. But if you’re regularly spending all of your time as a product manager responding to client requests or bespoke enhancements, one of two unpleasant things is likely true:

  1. You’re in a career rut.
  2. Your company doesn’t have a vision

Giving in to every enhancement request from the field is how scope creep happens. It’s how your product turns into a Frankenstein that you can’t sell.

Listening to your customers is good. Fixing bugs is table stakes. But unless you’re in the custom software development industry, you can’t act on every feature enhancement request from the field. A product can’t be all things to all people.

Avoiding feature creep depends on three things:

  1. Having a vision for your product
  2. Selling customers on that vision
  3. Saying no to enhancements that don’t fit the vision

It’s hard to say no. Some customers will get angry and a few may leave you when their contracts expire. But your vision has to have integrity, or you’ll never be able to focus on the 95% of the market that isn’t buying from you yet.

My advice:

Advocate market research – The most important thing a product manager can do is understand the target customers’ pain points and needs. More to the point, you need to understand the people whose problems you’re solving so intimately that there’s no need to hedge by catering to everyone.

Establish product principles – Product principles are useful for getting everyone to agree on priorities that extend beyond a single release. They’re  the strategic foundations of your product.

Sticking to your product principles (and knowing when to revise them) is part of the art of management. You can’t cede this responsibility to anyone – even the people who pay you.

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