Death by a Thousand Features

LinkedIn Article by Tim Williams 
August 31, 2016

Can the same kind of "feature fatigue" made famous by over-engineered electronic devices apply just as well to a professional services firm? Absolutely it can, and it produces largely the same effects.

Driven by new engineering innovations, the majority of manufacturers continue to add more and more features to their products without adequately evaluating their utility to the end user. This phenomenon manifests itself in the automotive world as car dashboards that rival the Starship Enterprise. Washing machines now provide so many options that users fret about the consequences of choosing the wrong setting for an expensive new pair of jeans.

Too Much Choice

The negative effects of oversupply of choice are well documented. Psychologist Barry Schwartz in his work on "The Paradox of Choice" argues that while autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well-being as humans, having too much choice can create immense anxiety, particularly in our role as buyers of products and services. We experience this phenomenon not only as shoppers, but in our selection of business partners.

Grocery stores have discovered that offering fewer choices of jam, for example, can actually improve overall jam sales in the store. Its counterintuitive, to be sure, but limiting choices helps lessen the anxiety buyers have about making the "right choice," even in a category as trivial as fruit preserves. 

Subtraction Beats Addition

Based on the theories of design espoused by Steve Jobs and Apple's long-time design director Jonathan Ives, Apple not only resists adding features to its products, it actively tries to subtract features. Today's MacBooks may be more powerful on the inside, but on the outside they have fewer ports and plugs than their predecessors. The iPhone has a single "home" button. The latest iteration of the Apple mouse has no visible buttons at all.


Procter & Gamble is another company that continually prunes its products. The world's largest marketer is in the process of selling or discontinuing half of their 150 brands so they can focus on the ones that generate the great majorityof their revenues and profits.

Software executive Anshu Sharma argues that technology companies -- now some of the largest businesses on the planet -- have their own version of unwise diversification. Drawing on the concept of a technology stack, he calls this kind of overreach "The Stack Fallacy."™ Sharma argues that the human tendency is to overvalue what we currently know and do, believing we can easily add more "stacks" (product layers) in order to break into new markets. But for most companies, this means venturing well beyond their core competencies -- territory that's marked much more by failure than success.

Your Firm Can Do Something, But It Can't Do Everything

Asking a product, service or company to do more than just a few things well usually is a recipe for disappointment if not disaster. Headlines about the new F-35 jet fighter illustrate the point: "Pentagon's big budget F-35 fighter 'can't turn, can't climb, can't run." The critique of America's new joint strike fighter is that the Pentagon tacked on so many requirements to this aircraft that it's unable to perform any of them as well as the multiple specialized aircraft the F-35 is designed to replace.

The deeply ingrained belief that more is better and that more choice attracts more business, most organizations pay some form of a "complexity tax" -- the expenses related to the resources required to build and maintain a "wide variety," "complete line," or "total solution." Wall Street analysts actually attach what they call a “diversification discount” to companies that spread themselves across many different categories, discounting the stock by as much as 10%, because they know that generally the more diversified the company, the less profitable it is.

Complexity in business is for amateurs. Professionals understand that strategy is not about making plans, but making choices. It's not just about articulating what you are, but rather what you're not.

As creative thinking pioneer Edward de Bono once observed, “There seems to be many people making things more complex, but very few people trying to make them simpler.”