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Are you red-teaming your product ideas?

Updated: May 21

As product managers, we have an imperative to eliminate non-viable ideas as quickly as possible. Smart PMs get feedback from others as early in the process as possible as it is literally impossible to be objective with ideas that appeal to us. They also collect evidence that can help them overcome their cognitive biases, especially confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret all information in a way that confirms a desired outcome).

However, just getting input from others isn’t enough. Militaries around the world and cyber security professionals use a practice called “red and blue teams” to find vulnerabilities in the systems they rely on. The red team is charged with finding flaws in something (a military plan or a security system); the blue team’s job is to defend the same asset.

At first, this may seem like a subtle distinction. However, asking someone for feedback does not have the same practical impact as empowering someone to attack an idea! Regarding the former, conflict avoidance tendencies and even good manners can prevent people from being completely forthright; in the latter approach, you are actually telling people that they need to “take the gloves off” and speak their minds. In these cases, a group dynamic takes over that will virtually always result in more complete and painful (and thus more valuable) feedback than you would get by simply asking for feedback.

Next time you have a bright product or feature idea, capture a baseline of information such as problems solved, target market, and proposed solution characteristics and empower a team of people to tear it apart. You should do this as early in the process as practical to avoid wasting effort. That initial sting that comes with “tough love” is but an inconvenience relative to the soul-crushing experience of shipping a product or feature that fails due to something that was probably knowable (I’m looking at you, Google Glass).

Do you have experience with this approach? Were there non-obvious downsides? Do you feel you got more valuable input?

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