The Knowing / Doing Gap: Why Product Teams aren’t doing the things they know they should

Access to high quality resources for product management is better than ever before. There are so many excellent people writing about product management that it’s easier than ever to find the knowledge that you need.

So why are there still so few product teams actually working in the ways described in all of these resources?

When I talk to other product people, I see the same thing again and again: Most PMs can talk convincingly about the benefits of and process for anything from customer discovery techniques, growth accounting, data driven validation, lean startup techniques, etc etc. But when I dig deeper and ask how much of this stuff do they are actually doing, the answer is too often something along the lines of “oh, we haven’t really started that yet.”

I call this the knowing / doing gap. 1

Knowledge about great product management practices is cheap. It’s available everywhere online and in countless books… knowledge is no longer your competitive advantage as a PM. Your competitive advantage is in actually doing it – and doing it well.

Why don’t more product teams do the things they know they need to do?It turns out it’s very easy to know you should be doing something, but then not do it. 

Why is this? Aside from the psychology of procrastination, I have a few theories:

Doing these things is hard

Doing customer interviews for example requires you to go outside the comfort and safety of your office and talk to real people. Many people find that really hard… but with customer discovery, it’s as unlikely as ever that the right answers are in the building.

Doing these things takes time

It’s easy to fall into the “we don’t have time to validate this” trap. Running a usability test on this prototype might take a few days, and we need to ship it next week! If we validate it we’ll be late!

It’s true: validating something, from a product idea to a user flow, takes time. But would you get behind the wheel of a race car if the mechanic told you, “we didn’t have time to test the brakes or the steering”. I wouldn’t; but that’s what you’re doing when you plod ahead shipping production code for an idea that’s never been validated.

One of my favourite quotes from Peter Drucker is:

“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency that which should not be done at all.”

Product Teams don’t have autonomy

I wrote about autonomy recently after Marty Cagan did a talk on the topic here in Berlin.

When teams are set up to deliver the feature list as proscribed by a Head of Product or CEO, then validation work feels useless. The ultimate success or failure of the product rests with the CEO. Right?

Well; I always argue to people in this situation that the best thing that you can do is run the validation anyway. Bring your findings to your Head of Product or CEO and discuss them. Either they will applaud your initiative and encourage you to run more validation; or they will deny the results and tell you “we’re doing it anyway”.

(If the response you get is the second, I would encourage you to find a new company.)

How to get started

At the end of the day, there are seldom really good excuses for not doing better customer discovery and product validation. Resources and knowledge are plentiful. The only thing that’s holding you back – is you!

A simple way to start building a validation mindset: every time you find yourself looking at a product feature or solution you’re planning, force yourself to step back and ask these questions:

  1. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  2. For whom?
  3. How do we really know it’s a problem? 
  4. How do we really know this solution is the optimal one?

A validation mindset is all about moving from “I think” or “I believe” to “I know”. The first step is just asking the question: “How do I know?” 

1  I’m not the first person to use the term “Knowing / Doing Gap”. There is at least one book with that title and an article from Stanford Business from 1999. 

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