Table stakes in product management?

I sometimes hear the phrase “table stakes” used to describe a feature. Basically a shorthand for a feature we can’t possibly leave out because the competitors have it, and the customer expects it.

As a product manager, this assumption of “table stakes” is dangerous because it assumes knowledge of our customer’s needs and leads to feature bloat.

It stops the conversation on whether something is actually needed, without fully considering whether we should. It eliminates the need for actually understanding your customer and gather data to back up your assertion. Not only that, simply matching your competitor’s features will result in an undifferentiated product.

The next time you hear someone describe a feature as table stakes, stop for a moment, and consider a few questions:

  • For whom is it table stakes?
  • Which particular customers are using this feature?
  • What particular problem or job are they using it for?
  • How common is that problem?
  • How could we measure whether this feature is actually necessary?

After considering these questions, you might still build the feature, but you’ll likely discover a better way to solve it than just mimicking your competitor.

Or you might discover that the assumed feature is not actually needed. Then you’ll be able to create a simpler, leaner product than your competitor, allowing you to tackle a more meaningful problem for your customer instead of rehashing what your competitor has done.

Great product management requires us to dig deeper than assumptions, and truly understand our customers.

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