Prioritize strengths

Years ago I wrote about the three bucket model of product management. Here's a quick recap. You categorize all possible features into one of three buckets— gamechangers, showstoppers (called table stakes in corporate vernacular) and distractions.

A gamechanger is a feature that solves a previously unsolved problem for a user. Gamechangers are why people buy. Consider the Ring doorbell. It lets you interact from anywhere with people who show up to your house. You couldn't do that before. That's new and exciting and solves a problem.

A showstopper is a flaw that prevents people from buying. If Ring cost $1,000 that would have been a showstopper. They had to get the price down to a point where people would buy. But you don't buy a product because the price is low. Fixing all the showstoppers doesn't get anyone interested. It gets people to press the "buy" button, but something else had to have captured their interest first.

A distraction is a feature that doesn't affect sales. The camera on Ring is awful compared to modern phone cameras, but nobody cares. People don't look at Ring and think "hmm, the video quality is bad, don't think I'll buy this." They might complain about it, but they buy. Distractions can look like showstoppers, but aren't.

The three bucket model transposes product management into a resource allocation problem. You spend no time on distractions, do the least work possible to fix showstoppers, and pour the rest of your creative energy into gamechangers. That's what gets you sales.

Products aren't limited to physical goods or intellectual property. In many markets, the product is you. In labor markets and dating markets, you're selling yourself. People sometimes think of their own lives as works of art; to an economist, works of art are products traded on art markets. Any time you can abstract something to a product, you can use the three bucket model. If the product is you, then the gamechangers, showstoppers and distractions is how you allocate effort to engineer yourself.

To apply this model you must understand your customers. When top law firms hire junior candidates, there is a list of showstoppers you must cross off. You must be from a top school. You must be from the top of your class. You must be well-dressed and well-spoken. You must take regular showers. But there aren't gamechangers because there can't be any. You're a kid. They don't care how special you are because all their applicants are special. As you come down law firm tiers, the bar for showstoppers keeps getting lower until you get all the way down to parking tickets and debt collections. Then only two things are expected of you— you had to have gone to law school and not been disbarred.

Hard technology startups are the opposite. There is one gamechanger— you must be a virtuoso programmer. If you have that, there are few showstoppers and even those aren't rigorous. You don't need to be from a top school, from the top of your class, or have gone to school at all. You can wear a ratty t-shirt. You don't need to have a dazzling presence. Even showers are optional. As long as you deliver, you just have to be put together enough not to drive everyone off.

These two extremes are rare. A much more common feature allocation is closer to the Ring example. Ring does a couple of things extremely well, and does a considerable number of things just well enough that customers aren't dissuaded from buying. With the exception of a few weird edge cases, successful products overwhelmingly tend to follow this pattern.

The most successful people I know overwhelmingly tend to follow this pattern too. They patch their weaknesses, but they know weaknesses are a bad foundation to build upon. So they invest the most energy in maximizing strengths. Your weaknesses are your showstoppers. You have to patch them just enough for the invisible hand to press "buy", but it's your strengths that get the market interested in the first place.

Most of us do the opposite, because our culture nudges us to. In agrarian and industrial societies it makes no sense to focus on gamechangers because there can't be any. The only thing you must do is be passable enough to do the work. In a knowledge economy gamechangers matter a great deal. But our culture hasn't caught up yet.

Weaknesses are universal, but strengths are unique. Everyone can get better at communication, organization or dieting. Solutions to universal problems are easy to productize, so productivity, coaching and wellness industries are set up to help you minimize weaknesses. Solutions to unique problems are hard to productize, so there is little emphasis on maximizing strengths. Yet to be successful in a knowledge economy, spend most of your time doing that.