The Problem With Parity

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: be wary of parity.

I’m speaking specifically about feature parity—the often-misguided requirement product management pros face when rolling out a new solution. Whether you’re tackling a software rewrite, expanding a web app to another platform, or simply updating a product, the external pressure to offer features that match those of your competitors—or the internal push to maintain symmetry with the past—frequently serve as a false sense of security.

But when your goal is crossing that 1.0 to 2.0 chasm—nurturing a scalable product that’s built to evolve with both the needs of your customers and marketplace trends—feature parity is rarely the golden ticket. After all, if what was already out there (whether it’s yours or your rival’s) was so great, why change it in the first place? Aren’t we all trying to create something better?

It’s easy to get caught in the parity trap. But, if you can thoughtfully consider the critical elements of successful product evolution—and use change management strategies to avoid key parity pitfalls—then your organization will be primed to address the market’s ever-changing demands. Here’s how.

Product evolution: What got you here won’t get you there

Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas. You have to pick carefully.”

And therein lies the difficulty of building strong, scalable products when you’re constantly worried about feature parity. The trinity of product development—time, resources, and quality—only allows us to throw so much into the mix while still meeting our commitments to the customer and heeding the tick-tock of the tech world’s cutthroat clock. So what does a healthy product evolution look like, and how is dodging parity tripwires part of that narrative?

Embrace objectivity

Yes, the product is your baby, but it’s time you took a good, hard look at that baby—warts and all. Before you simply hit copy and paste, think critically about which features are working, and which no longer drive your core metrics, are eschewed by users, or are likely to stand in the way of future development. Remember: what got you here isn’t going to get you there.

Identify feature friends and foes

When it comes to features, sorting the wheat from the chaff—and quickly—should be a paramount concern as you gear up for a product launch, update, or rewrite. A parity mindset leads to the default assumption that all old features (or those offered by competitors) are necessary. Rather than “checking the box” or making it work like the old product, take a step back and explore more deeply the job to be done.

During a recent “2.0” effort, my team at WebPT experienced this at a profound level. There was a feature in our 1.0 product that allowed physical therapists to document more quickly, and it was arguably one of the most successful aspects of the product. As we stepped back and reimagined how to enhance this feature to make it even quicker, savvier, and more intuitive, we came up with a completely different feature. The problem is that every existing user—along with many of my colleagues—expected parity with the old feature. The demand for it was so pronounced that it caused us to question ourselves. Did we actually need to implement the old feature for the sake of parity? In the end, the new model presented a more streamlined solution that wasn’t carrying any of the original’s dead weight. And once our users saw it in action—and realized it was indeed better—we were able to fully move away from the old version.

Expand beyond product adolescence

Think of parity in the context of your product lifecycle’s teenage years. Your little one has grown up beyond the fresh new idea it began as. And now, it’s in that awkward stage where not all the features have evolved from their MVP state—and many are no longer required. At this age, you want to avoid parity debt, which means eliminating the features that might have made sense at the product’s original launch but wouldn’t be included if the product was born today. This will help your product mature alongside your customers’ evolving needs.

Tips for avoiding the parity trap

Now that I’ve explained how falling down the parity rabbit hole can jeopardize your product’s successful evolution, here are a few strategies that will help you avoid it.

Get clear on your vision

First of all, it’s essential to start with a vision—a keen idea of your product’s robust future and the work your team must do to achieve it. When formulating your big picture, make sure you clarify exactly how what’s coming will differ from what has passed. Then, shift your focus to the actions that will help you bring that new model to life. As Jobs surmised, it might be hard to say no to new ideas—which is why it’s important to hold up each one against your vision. In short, keep your eye on the results—not the process.

Understand customer segmentation

Next, be sure to adopt best practices in segmentation, which requires a thorough understanding of the differences between your existing and new users. For example, existing users will set a high bar for the next offering, and they will be the ones who drive the gravitational pull of parity. New users, on the other hand, can view the new product through a different lens—without the clouded parity bias.

I’ve learned the hard way that launching new releases to a broad audience—rather than rolling it out in waves to better chart your product’s market fit along the curve—can often confuse the process and hinder product pros from identifying what’s actually working and what’s not. New products generate excitement, and a common mistake is to go too fast and force all users to adopt your new product before it’s ready. The biggest issue with this colossal leap is that you are experimenting with too many variables to understand how and what your users are reacting to, therefore impeding your ability to identify and respond effectively to problems. In a recent launch at WebPT, we jumped the gun and went too big, too fast. Luckily, we quickly recovered by focusing on individual hypotheses:

  • Can we do a low-touch enablement?
  • Do we need feature “X” to net new users?
  • Do we need to migrate historical settings?

The Navy Seals teach us that slow is smooth, and smooth is fast—and the same idea should be applied to product development and evolution.

Let the data speak for itself

Of course, a data-driven approach should guide your product development whenever possible. Embrace the use of data to form and recalibrate your vision, being careful not to grow too comfortable with an existing feature set. As part of the change management process, make sure to survey key organizational stakeholders, listening to their feedback, and allowing it to holistically steer your progress. Encourage specific insights: perhaps you do need to have parity with one piece of a particular feature. But does that mean every component of that feature must be at parity? Insist on using data to understand how each facet of a feature performs, and eliminate those that don’t move the needle.

The big takeaway to remember here is that while parity isn’t always bad, it can lure even the brightest product minds into a false sense of comfort, thereby inhibiting a product from reaching its full potential. The key is to think beyond parity—because that shouldn’t be your goal in the first place. Your product, customers, and bottom line will thank you.