Startup Product Managers, Please Avoid The Keyser Söze Effect


Here’s some information about Keyser Söze, for those who are asking themselves “Who or what Keyser Söze is???”  From Wikipedia:

…being fooled into believing in a person who does not exist….

clip_image002 As a Product Manager, I have worked very closely with cross functional teams in various organizations in my past. Everyone has an opinion about the overall direction of the product and the order in which the product features should be built. And then I start the judicious process of investigating the details of these cross-organization opinions, which to say the least is very interesting.

It’s truly amazing to see the extent to which people will go to make Product Managers believe the validity of the product need that they are representing.

Some of the most commonly given reasons are:

  1. The CEO / VP etc. is asking for specific feature.
  2. Our competition has that feature.
  3. Lots of customers are asking for that feature.
  4. I know it will sell (corollary – I cannot sell without it).
  5. That feature has lot of revenue potential.
  6. Customer wants the feature now else they won’t sign the deal or renew the contract.

There are many more such justifications that I see come up from time to time. And every time I find a new one, it feels like I’m dealing with Keyser Söze.

Only in this case I’m being convinced into believing in a feature instead of a person that doesn’t exist. Hence, as a Product Manager when I’m in product roadmap and strategy conversations  I have to understand if I’m dealing with Keyser Söze situation or not.

The good news is that it’s not rocket science to get out of a Keyser Söze situation. Here are a few ways:

1. Asking questions:

Ask ‘Why?’ Keep asking ‘why?’, ‘what?’, ‘how?’ until the business opportunity or product need is quantified. You have to be able to associate some numbers. It can be revenue, customers, or some other number.

2. Getting to the source:

As a Product Manager the farther away you are from the source of the need the worse Keyser Söze effect gets. So cut the to chase and get to the source. This will help you understand the real business need and urgency around it along with saving you tones of times and resources. Armed with this information you will be able solve the problem and not just the symptoms.

3. Using pattern recognition:

You can leverage historic data, the blast from the past, to see if the product need is valid. This is especially helpful when you don’t have direct access to the source or you want to perform high level validation.

At the end of the day as a Product Manager, you have to reduce the Keyser Söze effect to a level where you are able to take a stand.

A great Product Manager is able to do this fast and extremely effectively over a period of time, by leveraging:

1. Data repository of product usage, industry trends, etc: Invest in Industry trends reports, track product usage metrics, keep tab on the competition, etc.

2. Direct and indirect relationships built with source of the need: This could be your customers, partners, industry associations, and even competitors. Create Customer Advisory Boards (CAB) to build and nurture the long term relationships with your Customers.

3. Established processes that help others in the organization understand and deal with Keyser Söze effect. For example, establish a robust requirements gathering process that’s data driven and leverages existing workarounds before making heavy investments.

These techniques will help put wood behind your arrow and give you the confidence to say ‘NO’ for the features that don’t really add value or are aligned with your Product Vision / Strategy.

And for those who are still mystified with Keyser Söze, I would suggest watching ‘The Usual Suspects‘…one of my all time favorite movies…

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