Why Product Managers Must Resist “Quick Wins”

Tackling unplanned tasks from stakeholders made me feel helpful, but it bogged my team down. Here’s how I narrowed our focus to the most impactful tasks.


“How hard would it be...

…to add a section for notes?”

…to make the button a little bigger?”

…to add a banner to the homepage?”

For a long time, I loved this question.

My quick response of, “Oh, it shouldn’t be too hard!” felt like a cheap ticket out of a feeling I’ve often faced as a product manager: that I was failing to do enough for the teams that depend on me.

I sat in a small, fluorescent-lit room during a one-on-one with a colleague, also named Joe, who was a leader in our company’s customer service team. Building tools for customer service was one of my team’s responsibilities, so I’d listen as Joe looked at his laptop and read from a long list of indignities his team faced–—disorganized screens, drop-down menus that lacked the one item they always seemed to need, and more.

As I gazed down at the foot-long log that, for some reason, sat sideways between the two chairs in the small meeting room, a knot formed in my stomach. What kind of job was I doing if Joe’s team had to put up with so many menial, seemingly fixable problems?

I snapped out of it when Joe asked a question: How hard would it be to redesign the instructions a customer sees when transferring a retirement account to Betterment?

“Oh, that? Um, that should be pretty easy!” I said.

It continued. At UX review sessions and in chat messages, stakeholders would ask how hard it would be to add just one more thing. I would smile and add the task to our backlog or to the upcoming milestone of a project. I was helping! At least, I thought I was.

It’s not about difficulty.

Meanwhile, projects were taking longer than we’d expect. I’d feel woozy looking down from the swaying height of our backlog. Small things had gained a stubborn habit of turning into one big thing. I realized my love of quick wins, of feeling helpful, was doing no one any favors.

I’ve since changed my tune. When someone asks, “How hard would it be…” I respond with a question of my own.

“How big would it be?”

How much of an impact would it make? How much time would it save? How much revenue would it bring?

What I’ve begun to share with stakeholders is that our backlog is home to dozens of tasks that we’ll never get to, simple as they might be. They linger there because they would fail to make a big difference in my team’s pursuit of our higher goals. It’s no use (anymore) to advocate for a bit of work solely on the basis of how easy it would be to complete.

That cuts both ways. Our roadmap is full of projects that we expect will make a big impact: projects that will help not only our customers, but also those of our colleagues who serve them. These are projects we eagerly pursue—even though they are hard.