Product Principles

Get Out of the Muddy Middle

Look at your feature roadmap (the list of all the features you think are integral to your mature product, as you see it now). Now divide that feature list into three columns.

The first column consists of features that you understand very well, that are unique and core to your product. You invented, or intend to invent, or otherwise acquire those solutions. You have either 1. assessed the feasibility of building those things, and you have high confidence that you can deliver; or 2. you know that building prototypes for those features will teach you about your users’ needs and your chances of meeting them.

The second column consists of features that are solved problems with commodity solutions. These are things that your competitors may already have, and that you are confident you can follow without running into landmines.

The third column is everything else. The ‘muddy middle’. Everything that you can’t put in the first or the second column. It may be some five things that are nice-to-haves that you think would add up to a clear advantage over competition, but you’re not sure how hard they would be to implement, or even whether they can be implemented. They may be impossibly hard problems to solve that you’re not sure you need or that you’ll even get to. Those are the features that are a waste of time to think about.

How do they waste your time? They waste your time because you don’t know very much about them, and you don’t need them. That means you can’t even estimate how long it will take to build them. If the feature is a solution to a difficult but as-yet-unsolved problem, then if the feature is a nice-to-have, you can add it to the last group, with the caveat that, as long as nobody else has this feature, you don’t need it either.

It’s your duty to yourself and your team to eliminate the muddy middle.

How can you do that? You can ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is this feature necessary to address my competition right now? If not, get rid of it. If so, immediately get to work to understand what’s required to build it.
  2. If my competitors had this feature in the future, would I also need this feature to compete? If not, get rid of it.
    1. Is the feature likely soon to have a commodity implementation? If so, then you can add it to your second group. If it’s large enough, then your competitors will probably also be waiting for the commodity solution.

The take-away: bucket your tasks-to-be-done as either differentiators or commodity, and get rid of anything that doesn’t fit in one bucket or the other. Then buckle down on developing know-how and solving the problems that are differentiators for you, and then become a good customer and evaluate off-the-shelf solutions for anything that is commodity.