The Importance Trap

How we get caught up on seemingly-important problems that don't really matter

Despite all the care and thought and research we put into product decisions, most decisions don't matter. The Product Requirement Docs, the Product Reviews, the Mocks, the Testing, the Betas, and all the micro-decisions we obsess over along the way.

The project you're working on probably doesn't matter. The PRD you're writing probably will not have the intended impact. Your next 10 meetings are immaterial to your customers, and your business.

Often these decisions — the ones that don't matter — reveal their lack of importance only in hindsight. We were tweaking the price tag when we had the wrong business model. We were debating UX optimizations when we didn't have product-market fit. We expected the customers to be more upset — or delighted — than they were. Turns out they didn't care.

Why do we spend so much time solving problems that don't matter, and what are some strategies to avoid it?

The Importance Trap

The seemingly important-ness of the problems we're solving is a trap.

It starts with you, the hero of the story. You start thinking about something, most often because someone asked you to start thinking about something.

"Hey, a customer is asking us if we can support X. Wdyt?"

You haven't really thought about X much, and so you start doing some research. Maybe you talk to the customer to learn more about X. They confirm that X is important to them.

To support X, you'll need to spend some time building X. That will have to tradeoff against the work that you're already doing building Y, which you previously thought was important. To make this tradeoff decision, you'll need to do some additional research and figure out the Return on Investment (ROI). A decision like this needs its due diligence, after all!

You've fallen into the Importance Trap. This trap follows a pattern...

  1. X is introduced by some exogenous force (customer, sales, Twitter)

  2. You decide to "quickly explore" X

  3. X is bigger and more complicated than you thought, so you need to think thru complexity

  4. I've invested a lot in thinking about X — and convinced others to think about X — so it would be a waste to abandon X

Why we fall in to the trap

There are a few psychological biases that contribute to the Importance Trap.

Recency bias and desire to people-please push us into the Importance Trap, and our desire to remain consistent and avoid losses is what makes it a Trap.

Recency Bias

Problem X is staring us in the face. It's an email in your inbox from a sales rep saying the deal hinges on X. It's a conversation in a meeting with you CEO. The recency of the problem can jumble up the priority.

People Pleasing

Often the introduction of Problem X comes from someone we like, or trust, or want to make happy. It can be uncomfortable to explain the tradeoff that you'd have to make from solving Problem Y, which they may not know or care about.

Consistency Bias

People have a strong psychological drive to appear consistent with what they've already done. This means that we have an innate psychological drive to do things in the future based on what we've committed to in the past. So by the very nature of publicly committing to exploring an idea, it becomes harder for you to abandon pursuing the idea in the future.

Loss Aversion

Once we've spent a bunch of time in the Importance Trap, it becomes harder and harder to get out — because we would have to admit to ourselves that we wasted time, resources, energy, dollars exploring this idea.

How to avoid the trap?

So, how can you avoid the trap, and avoid spending time on low-impact problems?

Define your North Star ⭐

Pick something that you care about and declare it your north star. Share your north star with others. It could be a large-scale social problem (world hunger), a thing that you care about (raising a great family)...this is your fundamental "why" that motivates you.

Apply the Hallway Test 🧪

A former manager of mine used to talk about the "Hallway Test". The idea was that at any point, someone stops you in the hallway (back when there were offices!), and asked you where you were heading.

In a few sentences, you should be able to tie the thing thing that you're doing (task) to your North Star. For example: "I am going to a meeting to discuss our hiring plan for the next year because we need to grow our team in order to build this new product which will allow small businesses to bring their brick-and-mortar stores online, which will allow more people to participate in the digital economy, which I believe is the best way to reverse financial inequality in society"

Ruthlessly Prioritize your TO-DO List ✂️

The problem with most TO-DO lists is there is almost no friction to get something on there. "Add and prioritize later". This means that the TO-DO list becomes a dumping ground for low-impact ideas. There are many tricks to do this (Urgent-Important Matrix), but all should pass the Hallway Test.

Don't Fall In

Over the course of a Product Manager's career, the Importance Trap can distract from actual important problems with seemingly-important but low-impact problems.

By aligning yourself with a North Star, and being ruthless in ensuring that your priorities align with that North Star, you can avoid falling into the Importance Trap.