I need to interrupt my series of articles on product portfolio planning because over the past week I learned of three completely different companies that all had fairly disastrous product results for the same core reason: they delayed talking to customers until it was too late.

Steve Blank has a great line about this: “In a startup, no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”  And of course anyone that reads this blog knows that I believe strongly that the most important thing that a product leader must do is put his ideas in front of real customers and watch their response.

Yet often I meet people that have read my book or attended a workshop and say they totally and completely agree, yet they still hold off for months before they get any real validation of the ideas with the people that matter – the prospective customers and users.  And every day that goes by the product team gets increasingly deeper and more entangled with their original idea to the point that now they’re either too scared to show it to customers for fear of having to start over, or they are so confident that it will be great that they think they can just skip to development, or they’ve got developers screaming at them just to give them something to build.

But one way or the other, eventually customers see it and typically the reality hits hard.

So for those people that believe in principle that they need to validate their product ideas with real customers, but are unsure of how “baked” the idea needs to be, I offer this very specific rule: Never go more than two weeks without putting your product ideas in front of real users and customers.

Does this mean your ideas won’t be fully fleshed out yet?  Yes and good.  Does this mean that customers might not like your ideas?  Yes and good.  Remember it’s all about failing fast.

You can and should continue to refine your product ideas – it’s not like you have two weeks to define everything.  But please, please get out of the office and put your ideas in front of real users while you still have time to adapt.  Just assume that you have some big misses in there and your objective is simply to figure out what they are as quickly as you can.

If you are a manager of product managers, you can help by enforcing this rule and facilitating the customer testing, and pressing the product team for learnings after each session.

Your job as a product leader is to define a successful product, and have evidence that the product will be successful, not just your opinion.  You won’t find that evidence inside your building.

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