The late U.S. Commerce Secretary and buisness legend Pete Peterson shared an anecdote in his book Running on Empty that illustrates how difficult resource allocation decisions can be to reverse:

Fearing invasion by Napoleon in the early 19th century, the British dispatched a military unit to the cliffs of Dover to watch for his troops crossing the Channel. Several decades after Napoleon died and the threat of invasion had long since receded, the government finally de-funded the unit.

I like that story because the lesson is applicable to so many domains. If you’ve ever wondered why you’re spending time fixing bugs or maintaining code for features that no one uses in your product, you know what I mean. In behavioral finance, investors’ tendency to hold on for too long to assets that decrease in value is called the disposition effect, or “hanging on to losers.”

I’m not aware of an equivalent term in product design, but I think it’s commonly referred to as “keeping crappy features in the product.” When teams recognize they’re doing this, they often don’t do what they should, which is kill the feature or product. Instead they live on like zombies, all but dead but still consuming resources and bothering your team.

How It Happens and Why It Matters Even More than You Think

Product misses stem from failures of execution or failures of strategy. Execution failures can sometimes be salvaged. Bad or nonexistent strategies can’t be – nor should they.

Nonexistent strategy happens depressingly often in the B2B tech side at least — that over 60% of B2B product managers don’t know what to build is evidence enogh of that. Remember, just becuase those people don’t know what they should be building doesn’t meanz they’re teams aren’t building — they’re just doing it with very little chance of commercial success.

Notions of being agile, iterating rapidly, moving fast and breaking things and so play a part here, I believe. It lulls lessser managers into substituting iteration and experimentation for real strategy and convictions about what problems to solve for the market, and how valuable they are. It’s the agile mindset run amok — rapidly iterating on an MVP solution no one wants.

Nothing de-motivates a team like the efficient development of a poorly conceived product, followed by its ongoing maintenance.  And the more energy a team spends in the buildup to between development, sales training, marketing and everything else, the harder a zombie feature is to kill.

Fix It or Kill It

Smart people can tell if a product’s a loser. Making people work on products that won’t succeed will cause the best ones to leave and continue to drain energy from the ones who stay behind. To prevent that from happening, you’ve got to be willing to cut ties with zombie products and features, and the first step is making sure you have the information you need.

It’s not rocket science. There’s a mix of “hard” and “soft” data to pay attention to:

  1. Watch your in-app analytics carefully
  2. Track story points or time spent on feature maintenance
  3. Ask the developers what’s sucking up too much of their time
  4. Review win/loss reports
  5. Ask salespeople what features / products are getting the most traction with prospects
  6. Ask account managers what’s driving renewals

And that’s really about all you need. Remember, your customers don’t care how hard you pushed the team to build something or how much it cost. If they don’t want it, they don’t want it. Figure out whether it’s worth iterating upon, and if it’s not, kill it spend your resources elsewhere.

The only thing that sucks more than seeing a product or feature you worked on shelved is having to keep supporting it when you know it doesn’t add value.

In other words, if Napoleon’s dead, it’s time to move on.

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