The Words We Use to Avoid Accountability

Posted on November 21, 2022.
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“This is really going to drive engagement, increase usage and enable growth,” said every product manager ever. And, in so doing, said nothing at all. 

Whether it’s the squirrely words in the opening sentence or other generic motivational phrases like “drive active users” and “increase reach” it seems that product managers and other “business people” go out of their way to figure out how to “set goals” without actually being accountable for anything specific. 

Ambiguity and obfuscation

There is a finite list of the words we use to avoid accountability. This is by no means a complete list:

  • Engagement
  • Usage
  • Active users / activity
  • Growth
  • Reach
  • Conversion
  • Delight
  • Value

(Which others do you hear all the time?)

On the surface these seem like fine “business words.” Dig a little deeper though and you realize very quickly that these words mean nothing, at least nothing actually usable in a product development context. Yet we say them all the time. We say them because they’re said to us. Our bosses give us the task to increase engagement or broaden the reach of our users.

For a press release these words and phrases are (maybe) ok to use to describe high-level changes in your product’s ecosystem. You’ll often find them here paired with quarterly financial results. In this context they are (only slightly) more acceptable because we are reporting out to a largely non-technical audience about something that has already happened. This is what the press and external observers care about. However, as internal language designed to drive specific behavior in product teams, they’re as clear as mud. 

Avoiding accountability is the goal

Accountability is scary and risky so we avoid it. If I’m accountable for a specific metric and we don’t hit that metric I’ve failed at my job. However, if my job is to drive active users all I have to do is adjust the definition of “active” to suit the results we managed to achieve this quarter. The ambiguity plays to my favor helping avoid difficult conversations with my stakeholders. It’s no wonder these phrases are so common. We can’t predict the future so committing to generic positive trends leaves us lots of room to “be right.” 

Salvation through specificity

If you’ve ever taken a class with me I’ve likely coached you to be more specific. It’s through specificity that we tell better stories. We clearly define what we’re trying to do and how we’ll determine if we’ve done it. Instead of “driving growth” we’re going to “increase the number of new users acquired organically by 17% in the next 2 quarters.” Instead of “increasing engagement” we’re going to “increase the number of users who watch at least 2 videos per visit by 50%.” All of a sudden we have direction. We have focus. Our target audience is clear. Our goal is specific, measurable and actionable. 

The scary part of course is that now we’re accountable. There is a cost to that accountability. Your team has to figure out how to achieve this. However, there is also great power with specificity. You can use it to deflect unwanted feature requests and HIPPO-driven development. If a wayward user story comes your way via The Boss in the guise of “increasing engagement”, you can push back objectively by saying, “this user story will not help us increase the number of people watching 2 videos per visit” which is our current engagement goal. They will either retract the feature request or work with you to define what they believe to be a more appropriate engagement metric (hopefully). In either case, being more specific (and more accountable) has resulted in more focus and alignment for the team. 

We’ve never had more tools at our disposal that allow us to see, often in real time, the impact of the work we produce. The learning opportunities this insight creates can only be taken advantage of if we have a specific direction. The more we can avoid ambiguous words that don’t mean anything the better we communicate with each other. The clearer the communication the more efficient and successful we will be. Yes, it will come with greater accountability but that’s the power of building products and services with modern tools. 

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