The High Costs of Unfunded Mandates in Product Management

Dean Peters
2 min readFeb 17, 2020

Shut up, be happy. Obey all orders without question. The happiness you have demanded is now mandatory” — Jello Biafra, 1987

Command & control-ism comes in many forms, one of its more frustrating manifestations for product managers is that of the unfunded mandate.

What happens to cities and towns when weight down with the ball and chain of federal mandates.
Source: Safe Student Florida

The concept of the unfunded mandate comes from the politically-charged world of hierarchal government. We hear about it in the news and social media as people complain about heavy-handed federal authorities who mandate new legislation down onto local governments or business domains.

What makes these so objectionable are those instanced where those on the receiving end are left to figure out how to pay these top-down fiats. In fact, such mandates are held in such disrepute that representatives on both sides of the ideological aisle complain bitterly about it and pass bipartisan legislation to control it.

While I doubt there’s any amount of artificial intelligence and water-cooled supercomputing that will ever help us make sense of what happens in the rough-n-tumble arena of politics, I do think it’s possible we in product management can benefit from unpacking the topic of unfunded mandates in terms of digital product delivery.

How and Why

The under-capitalized execution aspect of mandated feature execution has both teased and intrigued me for several years; I blame some of this malady on growing up just outside “inside the beltway” in Maryland. And it’s one of the reasons why I frequently find myself engaged in several conversations with other product people on this topic via various MeetUps, conferences, DMs, and emails.

What I’ve heard is, that while unfunded feature mandates happen from time-to-time in poorly focused startups, the overwhelming instances of such executive fiat happen in an enterprise setting.

In the latter scenario, the first sign of such a mandate comes in the form of a power player seeking out a high-functioning team to immediately execute on an idea. Often, it’s a seagull manager who swoops in with statements along the lined of “We need this to stay competitive, and if we don’t do it customer ‘X’ will leave us … you have 4 programmers, just have one of them can work this feature while the others take care of existing work.

Is it any wonder why we in product find ourselves overhearing and engaged in gallows humor ranging in severity from “The reward for good hard work is yet more good hard work” to “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”?

Invariably, what results is the byproduct of a feature factory, only where many of the ‘planned’ features were ritually sacrificed to make the mandated ‘drop-dead-date’ but not necessarily the needed validation and value delivery to the customer.




Dean Peters

Agile product manager, recovering programmer, servant leader, former pro opera singer, husband & dad. Opinions & ideas expressed here are solely my own.