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Product Management Synapses

Blog: Tyner Blain

Empty stapler, and box of Staples-branded paper clips, misleadingly labeled

You know you’re a product manager when this image causes more than a chuckle. A few random thoughts inspired by this Rorschach test of product management concepts from sunk cost fallacy to intentionality.

Hanlon’s Razor

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” (wikipedia)

This was my immediate reaction when my colleague Dennis Stevens sent me this, with the comment ‘This has to be useful in a product management presentation.’  Then several other product-management related concepts popped into my head.

When I was going to college classes at night in the early 1990’s, another student who was working on his law degree had an email newsletter he sent out every week.  He would watch Melrose Place every week, then write up an article about the particular law-school related topics – contract law for the people renting their apartments, or something related to a an argument between two characters, etc.  I fully appreciated his geekery.  This post is in the same spirit as those emails.

So – did someone at staples knowingly create this packaging, because most people would not bother to return the staples, they would just come back and buy staples in addition to the paper clips?  Hanlon’s razor tells us no.  Comments from purported former Staples employees in the Reddit thread where this image originally appeared indicate that this mistake was common, for multiple products, even cases of paper.
Reddit comments(larger)

Sunk Cost Fallacy

normal stapler

Because we’ve already invested in a stapler, all paper-attaching must be done with staples.  Paper clips are unacceptable.

The humor of the original post is based on the frustration associated with not being able to attach sheets of paper together.  Paper clips work perfectly well to attach a few sheets of paper together.  They are a viable alternative to stapling.  A common decision-making flaw in business is the sunk cost fallacy which is usually explained as “throwing good money after bad.”  More generally, it is treating previous decisions as constraints on future decisions.

For a large IT organization, making a decision to implement by building on top of the legacy mainframe, vs. building out a modern solution is a common example.  The urge to leverage previous investments is strong.  However, the new decision is conceptually decoupled from the earlier decision to invest in the legacy architecture.  If that makes the most sense, given the objectives of the investment, strategy of the firm, and architectural vision, great.  If not – don’t let the backward-looking sunk cost fallacy force you into a bad forward-looking decision.

Jobs to Be Done


In Mental Models by Indi Young (amazon link), almost a decade ago, Indi talked about understanding groups of users based on their behaviors and intent.  She applies the same concept Clayton Christensen used (with his surprising milkshake example as the mental hook) to drive a compelling outside-in point of view about products.

What job is your customer trying to do?

The customer is probably trying to attach several sheets of paper together.  A jobs-to-be-done interview would uncover that the person was an accountant filing several pages of notes taken at a recent conference.  The person wants to keep the notes together, and available for future reference on the big project which starts next month; and does not want the notes cluttering her desk.  So she reached for the stapler, it was out of staples.  That night on the way home from work, she stopped to pick up more staples.  The next day she discovered that she had purchased paper clips.

She’s ok – because the job is to make the information from the conference easy to access when needed next month, while also keeping her work area tidy.  A paper clip serves the function just as effectively as a staple.

Context of Design vs. Requirements

different photo of poorly labeled box of paper clips from Staples

There is nuance to understanding customer goals when developing requirements or formulating product strategy.

A naïve analysis would indicate that the “job” to be done is to refill the stapler.  That’s why our accountant went to the store in the first place.  Except it isn’t.  Our accountant gets a trivial benefit from refilling the stapler.  Our accountant gets a greater benefit from attaching several pieces of paper, but it is still trivial.

Our accountant gets value from having the information available for future use and from having a tidy workspace.  An engineer would argue that the “real” value only comes from effectively recalling and applying the insights from her notes.  There’s certainly more measurable value associated with using those notes in the future – however there is immediate psychological benefit of knowing that the information will be available in the future.  Nir Eyal will take you down the rabbit hole of psychological motivation if Dan Ariely hasn’t already done it.

The two views – the engineer’s and the psychologist’s – both point to our accountant’s goal of doing her job better, as a means of feeling better about herself because she gets immediate positive feedback – and dopamine – by preparing for the future, and by accomplishing a micro-goal in the present.

This behavioral perspective is certainly useful and broadly applicable, but there’s also a pattern here, where the “root cause” of the value is also a contextual perspective on which problem you’re solving.  It’s academic for a single user, but even more powerful when thinking about organizations and how strategy gets implemented one user story at a time.

context based design from (Lists are not Roadmaps)

We can ask interesting questions like

Perhaps scanning the notes into the computer and using software like Evernote to index her notes and make them searchable is an even better approach.  Does our accountant have thousands of pages of notes, acquired from decades worth of conferences?

At an organizational level, imagine how communication can unpack around objectives as a function of context:

The context in which you are framing your decisions is key to not undermining the overall goals or strategic objectives of your organization.  It might be that including information on the website is exactly the wrong way to nurture an audience of dedicated, engaged customers – even if it does generate awareness about “something else you’re trying to sell them.”


You might be a product manager if looking at a poorly executed graphic design on packaging leads you down the path of thinking about how your company’s strategy ultimately manifests in the work being done by a member of your team today.

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