How to Reduce Product Debt by Solving the ‘Fail-Fast Problem’

January 14, 2021

By Luke Gallimore, Head of Product Management, Monstarlab

Too much pressure on delivery to ‘fail fast’ with unvalidated ideas will inevitably create a huge amount of product debt.

Successful product managers ensure that their products are full to the brim with valuable functionality and features. Anything else built is wastage, or ‘product debt’. The more product debt you have, the lower your return on investment will be.

There are two very common and frequently discussed causes of product debt:

  1. Lack of a product strategy
  2. Lack of structured discovery

However, there is a third, which is rarely spoken about but which can have the biggest impact. It is the ‘fail-fast problem’.

Before we get into that, let us recap on the first two.

Cause 1: Lack of a Product Strategy

First, without a clear product strategy, you will have no objective means of making decisions, therefore feedback on the product will be unfiltered and other factors will lead the decision making.

For example, the seniority of the person who suggested it, or the frequency of which the feedback was raised. It is not that these sources are always wrong — it is that they are not necessarily always right. The easiest and most effective way of reducing product debt is to create a good product strategy and use it.

Cause 2: Lack of Structured Discovery

Second, without a good process of discovery, you leave the door wide open for assumptions and biases. If you are not structuring your investigation into the validity of ideas, you will build an unacceptable amount of uncertainty into your product. Therefore, you will increase the risk of building product debt.

It is true that discovery will rarely (if ever) reduce your uncertainty to zero. However, the more discovery you do — and the better you do it — the more certainty you will have that you are reducing the risk of product debt. To prevent product debt, manage a healthy roadmap with effective discovery.

It is no secret that most product managers want to create clearer product strategies and most claim they do not have the time to do proper discovery.
However, we now return to the third cause of product debt. This one is much sneakier, much less talked about, and much more destructive.

Cause 3: The Fail-Fast Problem

Too much pressure to deliver fast to stakeholders can cause big problems. The root of this cause is a misunderstanding of the very well-intentioned fail-fast mindset.

In truth, failing fast means being open to iterative development, informed by structured discovery and learning. However, it is often used as an excuse for not doing the structured discovery and learning at all and instead, building blind based on unvalidated feedback and ideas.

This is the product equivalent of asking for forgiveness, not for permission. Except it is not forgiveness you need but more budget. And instead of asking for permission, you needed to have validated the ideas.

Adopting this misunderstood fail-fast mindset leaves the floodgates open for all ideas, feedback and suggestions in the product to be at least tried. But you should not fling everything at the wall hoping some of it will stick. This will naturally lead to product debt.

The reason why this third cause of product debt is so destructive is that it bypasses the first two (lack of a product strategy and lack of a discovery process). You are forced to ignore these incredibly important and foundational responsibilities, for the sake of speed and short-term people-pleasing.

Developing digital products is expensive. If you are reading this you probably already know that and you are quietly nodding and dabbing a tear. If you want to reduce the wastage of digital development and reduce your product debt, then thinking more long-term will pay off.

Allow me to use an example to illustrate this point. You might want to grab a snack if you are feeling peckish.

The Restaurant of Product Development

In this analogy, product discovery is the kitchen, and the product delivery team is the waiting staff. They deliver the product (food) to your hungry customers. Meanwhile you — as the owner — have bills to pay.

Your restaurant’s success depends on the quality of the food you serve to your customers — so they keep coming back — and the cost of the ingredients (your investment).

If you were to fling the doors wide for any customer to enter and demand off-menu orders, then the restaurant will be rushed and will either send out sub-standard food in a hurry, or leave lots of customers hungry. And once you have let them in, they will not leave until their bellies are full with the food they asked for.

To put it simply, your restaurant will not last long. This approach might get you great short term revenue, but at the cost of long-term loyalty, growth and credibility.

A balance must be found which satisfies the customers as well as the owner in a sustainable, lean way.

Back to reality

If you say yes to all demands from stakeholders and users before the discovery team responsible for defining solutions from problems has validated them, you are inevitably going to create product debt. Furthermore, the promises are too difficult to go back on.

Once feature promises are communicated widely, the product team can unfairly become the point of failure.

How to Overcome The Fail-Fast Problem

If you allow a firehose of unstructured feedback and over-promise — ignoring the (very necessary) controls of your roadmap and strategy — you will burst the seams of capacity in the delivery and discovery teams and create product debt.

There will not be enough time to do discovery with the due diligence required. Nor will there be sufficient time to subsequently deliver to a high standard against a clear specification.

So, what are the practical steps you can take to avoid this issue? There is a two-pronged approach (kitchen utensil pun intended):

  1. Increase the capacity of discovery, so that more feedback, ideas and requests can be investigated against a strict validation criteria.
  2. Do not promise delivery of functionality until after the originating feedback, idea or request has been through the process of discovery.

In other words, do not take everyone’s order down and hope you might fail fast. That is a waste of money. Define and communicate a clear product strategy. Do proper discovery and manage a healthy roadmap.

Discovery is frequently one of the most under-funded phases of a project, because the outputs are not as immediate and tangible as they are in delivery (which is normally over-funded to overcompensate for the lack of certainty engendered by insufficient discovery budgets).

This is a classic and age-old bias. However, more investment in discovery will create increased certainty on the return on investment in a digital product.

Key Takeaways

  • Product debt is wastage created in a product through a lack of validation of features and functionality.
  • There are two common and well-understood causes of product debt — lack of a product strategy & lack of a discovery process.
  • There is a third cause of product debt, which is less talk about but far more destructive; the fail-fast problem.
  • The fail-fast problem comes from a misunderstanding of the well intentioned fail fast mindset where no (or insufficient) validation is done.
  • To solve the fail-fast problem you must either increase bandwidth in discovery, or stop making promises to stakeholders before ideas have been validated by discovery.
  • Invest more in discovery to increase the certainty of creating value in the long term.



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