The shut down of the US government is a great case study for Product Managers and Entrepreneurs. It is a case study on signal vs noise.
There is no doubt that all Congressmen have a very loud and ardent set of “customers.” Pick the issue, and you have passionate believers on both sides. These people are absolutely sure that they are correct and anything short of complete capitulation is a sign of incompetence. Product Managers/Founders often face the exact same phenomenon, although we don’t hold Town Halls that get televised.
The Hard Part
The challenge for any leader when dealing with a group like this is that a Power User’s views are very rarely representative of mass market. [If you need to understand why, read “Crossing the Chasm.” Great book that explains the psychology of a customer base.] Any leader with passionate users faces a constant struggle to objectively analyze data in the face of overwhelmingly loud voices from a niche user base.
FourSquare has this problem in spades. For those that don’t know, FourSquare is a mobile app that let’s users “checkin” to locations, thus notifying friends (and keeping a record of) where they visit. It has a gaming mechanism that has inspired a cultish following among a niche group of heavy social media users. As FourSquare has tried to evolve to a mass market product with a business model, every effort to move away from the “checkin” has been met with strong push back from the power users. The product team wants to be seen as a location search product like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Yet the power users have very strong opinions and are constantly fighting FourSquare’s move away from gamification and checkins.
What to do?
Just like FourSquare, the GOP has a challenge on their hands. They have a very, very passionate set of customers who are not representative of mainstream Americans but are fighting extremely hard to pull the GOP to its direction. And like any product manager, the leaders of the GOP have a decision to make. Do they follow the passionate niche or do they find a way to placate them while not turning off the masses. This is the essence of leadership. Dennis Crowley (the Founder of FourSquare) is doing an admirable job with this challenge. If only John Boehner would follow him on Twitter, he could learn a lot and maybe our government would be functioning as smoothly as the FourSquare team.