Have you ever seen a kid play Mario Kart for the first time? They see an obstacle on the race track and zig hard to the left, smashing into a wall. Then they overcorrect with a sharp zag to the right, slamming into the other wall or flying right off the edge of the track. It’s a classic beginner’s mistake and one you have to work hard to unlearn. I see this same mistake happen on product teams. If you’ve ever kicked off Q1 saying that customer retention is your #1 priority, only to have an emergency second kickoff six weeks later about user acquisition, then you might be Mario Karting. And you might want to knock it off – especially if you are no longer in your early growth phase. 

Why Is Mario Karting Bad?

  • Mario Karting Makes Your Team Lose Momentum. Years of research show that anytime you shift or add to a team’s focus, you hurt their productivity. It takes product managers, designers, and engineers time to ramp up on the problem space, the customer needs, and the codebase. So, let’s say that the time is about six weeks. There are about 50 working weeks in the year. Therefore, changing a team’s focus once a quarter results in spending 48% of their time in that less productive “onboarding” phase.
  • Mario Karting Can Make Your Team Lose Trust. Having to change course is bound to happen occasionally. Thankfully most teams understand this as long as you are transparent with them about your thinking. However, when the third or fourth time the strategy takes an unexpected turn, that trust erodes. Then you risk looking like you don’t know what you are doing. Afterwhich, your teams may start going rogue or may even start looking around for other opportunities.
  • Mario Karting Keeps You from Building Long-term Value. Building truly innovative products takes time – sometimes years of committed work. As a product leader, it is your job to create space for those long-term projects. In addition, you must defend them against short term numbers plays and shield them from resource drain. Failing to do so will result in many MVPs that you built to solve business fires. Then you’ll never get out of the swerve pattern, never get across the finish line.

Why Does It Happen?

We usually have legit reasons. Maybe a number that is important to our board or our investors is surprisingly different than what we expected. So then we feel an urgency to address it immediately. Perhaps a competitor enters the field and has a feature set that could draw customers away if we don’t fast follow. Maybe an opportunity to partner comes out of nowhere and looks too good to pass up.

When things like this happen, you may want to keep in mind:

  • It’s your job to push back and explain your thinking. Pressure from senior stakeholders is very real and is one of the hardest swerve factors to resist. But ultimately your boss, your board, your customers want you to build the right thing to create long term value and it’s literally your job to sell your strategy and push back against unnecessary swerves. (If you know that there is a board meeting coming up, you can also avoid rolling out any strategies until after your board takes a look to avoid having to backstep.)
  • Feature FOMO is real, and it’s not doing you any favors. Brian Crofts wrote a great article on the Feature FOMO phenomenon. Not only does Feature FOMO distract teams, but it can actually hurt your customer’s experience. As Brian says, “Every roll-out needs to be deliberate, well-thought-out and obsessively monitored. Otherwise, product teams are wasting resources and frustrating customers.”
  • “Yes” Doesn’t mean “Right This Second”. When an interesting opportunity comes at the wrong time, try to separate the decision that we want to do this work from the expectation that that means the work will be done immediately. 

All of that said, sometimes you gotta swerve. So…

If you must Mario Kart, do it like a Pro

At a high-growth company, change is inevitable, and often the company that adapts the fastest reaps the highest rewards. I am not arguing against being agile in your strategy or your development practices. It’s up to you as a leader to discern between a distraction and a necessary swerve. 

But if you’re going to Mario Kart, I suggest you do it like a seasoned racer. 

One thing I’ve seen work well if you want to move fast is to set up a small, lightweight, senior team of product, design, and developers whose charter is to do messy, difficult, time-sensitive projects. I’ve led one of these teams in my career, and it was incredibly professionally fulfilling. We were formed knowing that improvisation and speed was our purpose. We were a jet bike, gracefully avoiding banana peels, finding shortcuts, pumping that Golden Toadstool, headed to the finish line.

About the speaker
Laura Burkhauser Twitter, Senior Product Manager Member

I'm an experienced product leader working at the intersection of fashion and technology. I'm passionate about personalization, moments of unexpected joy, and launching the thing. ?