Why most products suck

Why oh why?

I’ve thought a lot about this question since I began advising and consulting in the early 1990s with companies like Kurzweil Applied Intelligence. I kept asking this question through the dotcom boom, the bust, and the first two decades of this century along the way working with Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and many others.

I co-authored a book on this, Customers Included, and have now given more than 350 talks.

Here’s the surprising answer: it doesn’t have to do with the product itself or even just the product organization. Yes – bad organization design or inward-looking product managers can screw it up. But that’s not typically the root cause.

A main reason: product leaders (and all other leaders) often refuse to ask for help.

They don’t ask for help from customers, from each other, from peers. Nobody. Nothing.

They are closed-minded. Defensive. Arrogant. And generally a pain in the ass to be around.

Sound familiar?

After Reed Hastings almost destroyed Netflix in 2011, he resurrected the company based on five words. The five most important words in my book.

He said the root cause of their existential crisis stemmed from:

Arrogance based on past success.

That’s why 15 years ago I created a private community where product leaders and others could ask their non-competing peers for help. Leaders need to learn to listen to their customers, to their colleagues, to each other – to find ways to combat the kind of arrogance that almost took down Netflix.

So I created a safezone – a place removed from internal politics and pressures where all the members lead companies or functions, are committed to great product development, and, here’s the important part, are willing to ask for help.

Recently, we welcomed a Chief Product Officer from San Francisco. He’s worked in tech for a longtime but has never participated in a Collaborative Gain Council. He just needed a place where he could be open about all the things he doesn’t know how to do – his fears and pressures from the CEO, the board, the team, customers, etc.

We immediately got him connected to some seasoned product leaders whose only agenda was to listen and help him.

He emailed me this morning and reflected on how helpful it’s been to just be able to say “I need help” or “I don’t know” and not have to keep up the pretense that he knows everything.

Of course, our teams want to believe we know what we are doing. So do our bosses. Yet – in this rapidly changing world where customer expectations change, technology changes, and what defines a good product changes, leaders need a safe place to ask for help and practice the art of listening, learning, and opening up.

Do you ask for help?

Do you think asking for help is a sign of weakness rather than strength?

Do you listen? Or is listening a weakness too in your book?

What about your boss? Your overall company culture?

Do you see a connection between the answer to those questions and the answer to why most products suck?

I look forward to hearing from you.

About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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