SOS! A Beginner’s Guide to Shiny Object Syndrome

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Most product managers, regardless of their industry, background, or years of experience, are bound to come face to face with Shiny Objects. Sounds fun, right?

Unfortunately, these are not a good thing.

Some PMs will even fall prey to Shiny Objects themselves, which can seriously interfere with the way they perform their role. Or they might encounter an executive or pushy stakeholder who is suffering from Shiny Object Syndrome and cannot see past it. So what is this exactly and how can PMs avoid falling under its spell?

Let’s find out:

  1. What is Shiny Object Syndrome?
  2. What are the dangers of Shiny Object Syndrome?
  3. Is AI an example of Shiny Object Syndrome?
  4. How can product managers address Shiny Object Syndrome?

1. What is Shiny Object Syndrome?

A Shiny Object can best be described as the pursuit of a specific feature or type of technology at any cost, even to the detriment of other features or technologies which might better serve the goals of one particular product or company. In a world of finite resources and limited capital, the pursuit of a Shiny Object can, ultimately, result in bankruptcy or cause a product to be discontinued altogether. 

Why does the C-suite fall for Shiny Object Syndrome?

In product management, the concept of “feature parity” is used to indicate the minimum set of functionalities expected from a product at any given point in time in order for it to be considered on par with its direct competitors. Feature parity is usually a moving target, since users tend to become more demanding as the product matures and as its competitors play catch up.

Computer performance is an easy example of this phenomenon: the speed we expect from a personal computer in 2024 is dramatically different from that of twenty years ago. No-one in 2024 with access to a reliable internet connection would find it acceptable to wait 30 seconds for a page to load. The expectations of the average user have evolved as technology sets new standards, time after time.

It’s important to recall this concept of feature parity when considering Shiny Object Syndrome because it forces executives to consider a crucial question:

Is this thing that I’m trying to push for a Shiny Object, or is it the beginning of a new shift of paradigm with a potential direct impact on my business?

Being able to distinguish between a fad and a new paradigm might spell the difference between a thriving business and going out of business.

Kodak and Blockbuster are often cited as examples of once market leaders that were not able to successfully navigate this: they mistook a genuine paradigm change for a Shiny Object (digital cameras in the case of Kodak, streaming in the case of Blockbuster) and not only lost market leadership, but were unable to stay in business.

In my own work as a Product Manager for both large corporates and medium sized companies, I’ve had front row seats to C-level obsession with the latest technology hype, be it the absolute need to have a podcast as an additional product offering, or to insist that integrating Microsoft’s Cortana was the only way to attain market leadership (and yes, solution design and Shiny Object Syndrome do tend to co-occur). 

2. What are the dangers of Shiny Object Syndrome?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather a collection of potentially substantial problems which Shiny Object Syndrome can cause: 

Delayed product launch(es)

Time to market is something that every product manager needs to weigh carefully in their prioritization decisions

Whenever a Shiny Object comes along, it inevitably demands to borrow time from development. In cases where it’s considered that a product must play catch-up to its competitors by showcasing that it too has this Shiny Object, this is a recipe for extended periods of time with no releases and no product updates. 

Derailed product development

While product roadmaps are not set in stone, if a product manager is forced to effectively stop development and regroup, that type of explorative exercise taken to the extreme might force a company to pivot in order to stay in business.

Absence of a USP

This might sound like a projection exercise, but what would your product honestly look like if this Shiny Object were suddenly to materialize? 

You can make this exercise more tangible by using a tool like Gartner’s Magic Quadrant and seeing where that Shiny Object could potentially land you. Next, if you still remain convinced that the Object is worth pursuing, you can apply Itamar Gilad’s revised Impact Effort prioritization matrix to gauge the potential consequences of your choice.

shiny object syndrome can be managed

3. Is AI an example of Shiny Object Syndrome? 

There’s little doubt that the launch of ChatGPT and myriad other Large Language Models (LLMs) in late 2022 has ushered in a race for tech companies to prove that they too are able to leverage “the power of AI”. 

In the current climate of dried-up funding and ongoing layoffs across tech, AI does have the potential to become a differentiator: however, it’s worth noting that applications of AI that have recently made headlines in the popular press (such as LLMs) have been around for quite some time.

So, in that sense, applying AI to Big Data, or using it to automate processes, or to amplify the reach of already existing products, appears to be a real possibility, as opposed to being a Shiny Object Syndrome. Having said that, it will remain up to each business or aspiring founder to understand the best way to leverage AI for them, rather than insisting on incorporating AI at any cost. 

4. How can product managers address Shiny Object Syndrome?

Being able to identify it as such is the first step. To that end, there is a number of good questions to ask:

Who has requested this?

HiPPOS and Shiny Objects do unfortunately have a tendency to go together, so this is something PMs should be prepared for. 

Polish off your best stakeholder management techniques and do try to get to the core reasons as to why your HiPPO might have made this request. Are they:

  • suffering from FOMO?
  • afraid that raising another round of funding will be hard without a Shiny Object to show off?
  • fighting to keep their own job relevant? 

If their reason is one of these, it mightn’t be a good enough one to justify a complete overall of already agreed priorities. 

Where does it fit with the company’s current strategy and goals?

Assuming you are working for a company with a vision, a mission and a strategy, all of those are good places to start when deciding if something might be a Shiny Object or a real game-changer. 

If, for instance, you would be required to pivot in order to incorporate this Shiny Object, then it is something that should require careful and weighted consideration. 

How should the decision be taken as to whether it is worth pursuing or not? 

One excellent place to start is to draw out an opportunity and solution tree. Using this tool will allow you to map the Desired Outcome you would hope to achieve, and also to initiate a proper  product discovery process which includes scoping out opportunities, devisings experiments and focusing on drawing data-informed conclusions. 

At the very least, by investigating the problem space, you will have some very good arguments in hand as to whether it is worth pursuing this Shiny Object or not. 

5. Final thoughts

The field of technology is subject to hypes and fads like any other. This is extremely important to keep in mind when evaluating whether Shiny Objects are worth going for. 

Equally important is to understand where your product and business are in relation to it. In short, gut feelings and intuition alone should not form the basis of a decision of whether to forgo current priorities to incorporate a Shiny Object into your product offering. In short, Shiny Object Syndrome should be carefully managed, alongside other priorities that have already been identified.

Managing Shiny Object Syndrome is just one of the product management soft skills you’ll learn in addition to the hard skills as part of the CareerFoundry Product Management Program. You’ll be learning with the help of a dedicated tutor as well as an experienced mentor, who’ll be only too happy to share their experiences in the field.

Interested in seeing how you might fit into the world of product management? Why not try out this free, 5-day introductory course to product management?

Curious to learn more? Here are some relevant articles for further reading:

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