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The staff productivity trap

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The staff productivity trap

Marco Moreira

Anybody responsible for prioritizing the work of an innovation group (usually Product Managers - aka PMs) will eventually face what I call the "staff productivity trap". The story goes like this:

  • In any organization, there's always more work to be done than people available to do it, so we must prioritize the most important work
  • Any sensible product manager will meet with stakeholders and customers to hear their opinions on what's important. Unsurprisingly, each group will make a case for why their respective problems should be the most important to solve.
  • Of all groups, the only people PAYING you to solve their problems are the customers! However, their voices are often not in the building every day telling you for the thousandth time how that bug in the CRM system is causing days of rework every month for staff. If only we fixed that bug, then our sales people would have more time to help customers...
  • You don't want to be a jerk. After all, you work and might even be friends with these people, so why not solve their problem? It's not even going to take that long, everyone inside the building agrees with the priority, etc
  • So you end up prioritizing a colleague's needs over your customers’ biggest pain points. Rinse and repeat this process and eventually you will end up building something nobody will actually pay for.

Did you notice the trap? Here it is just in case: the staff productivity trap is when PMs prioritize improvements to internal productivity as an indirect way to create customer value instead of directly solving customer problems. It sounds harmless, but falling on the trap greatly increases the risk of building something nobody will buy.

Why does that happen? How is it that a business, whose purpose is to serve customers, ends up deprioritizing customer needs in such a way? Obviously, any human decision is always a mix of several factors, but here are the most powerful ones I've seen in my own behavior and in PM colleagues elsewhere:

  1. Culture: even though culture is not something a PM directly controls, this is the largest factor behind the staff productivity trap.  If the very top of an organization is frequently disputing which department should get help, then it's an uphill battle for any PM to "break rank" and prioritize the customer instead. If you're in this situation, unfortunately you have two choices: change the company's culture in heroic fashion or leave.
  2. Peer pressure: someone once told me that the job of a great PM is to keep everyone mildly unhappy. Behind this cheerful job description is the fact that saying yes to customer needs often (but not always) means saying no to a colleague. PMs are only human, so it's natural that staying in good terms with coworkers is a big factor in their decision making process.
  3. Laziness/shyness: talking to customers is a lot more difficult than talking to colleagues. There's the scheduling mess, the social awkwardness of meeting new people, the fuzziness of customer feedback, etc. It’s tempting to shortcut the whole process by listening to colleagues that are in frequent contact with customers instead. It’s tempting, but it’s a trap.

Sounds like great fun, right? Thankfully, the solution to the staff productivity is simple: focus on building solutions that solve customer problems at all times! If your innovation solves a particularly nasty problem that also improves staff productivity, then more power to you. It is absolutely critical for PMs to not reverse the order of operations, though. In fact, it's one of the main reasons why Product Management is a job at all. If every company magically knew exactly what work to prioritize in order to create customer value, then we wouldn't need to have PMs around.

The staff productivity trap is seductive, but it’s the responsibility of PMs to not confuse generating customer value with making a colleague's job easier. Yes there are cases where these priorities are not in conflict, but the customer should come first whenever they are. For better or worse, the trap is a constant presence in a PM’s career, so err on the side of the customer whenever you're in doubt. People inside the building might get upset in the short term, but everyone will be better off in the long term.