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Customer Feedback and the Art of Selectively Forgetting

If you are currently my customer, and you see the above headline, you might be understandably alarmed. “I spend my valuable time meeting with this guy, and he brazenly admits that he ignores half of what I tell him. Why should I take his call again?” Let me be the first to assure you that this is not what I mean. For one thing, forgetting is not the same thing as ignoring. For another thing, I am actively listening to whatever you are telling me in the moment, and truly trying to analyze and synthesize it. I am also writing down the most substantial or insightful things you say, with pen and paper (because studies show that this physical act, rather than typing out notes, is the best way to retain information). But after that? I probably won’t remember exactly what you said, and I’m definitely not taking immediate action to prioritize anything. That’s because successful product management is about pattern-matching and sense making across a market, not individual customers, and any individual data point, even from our most important customers, might be an outlier. Which leads me to the practice that I call selective forgetting.

As a product manager, if you do not manage your cognitive load, you will become paralyzed by the immense volume of discrete pieces of data that come your way on a day-to-day basis. Frankly, most of it is temporal noise: important to someone in the moment, but unimportant long-term. The problem is that you cannot know a priori which is which. Do this work long enough and you will soon see that what customers are hopping mad about today might be totally irrelevant in six months. So, my advice to product managers is this: willfully forget most of what you hear. If there are important insights, and you’ve actively listened to what a customer said, then your mental model or point-of-view of a domain will have been subtly altered. If something comes up repeatedly (I usually tell PMs, “At least a dozen times, across multiple customers”) then perhaps it’s a real signal to pay attention to. This is the reason many PM decisions are made based on judgment and intuition, rather than true traceability to “stated requirements”.

Now I recognize that this does cause some consternation among other members of the EPD (engineering, product, design) triad, who understandably want a written record of ten or twenty customers saying the same thing. Sometimes this is realistic to obtain through focused research, and sometimes it is not, particularly when trying to intuit customers’ needs and not wants. One also must balance speed of execution against one’s intuition being wrong. If the stakes are relatively low – and in software product management, most doors are one-way doors – then choices made based on incorrect intuition can likely be reversed, so spending the time to conduct focused research is not worth it. For hardware products, or for more foundational concepts in software products, one must take more care.

Forgetting most of what you hear frees your mind to focus on the things that really are important. It’s another way of practicing the principle of “to do really great things, you must decide to not pursue other opportunities that are also promising”.

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