The consensus approach for building a great product is to craft a vision and then jealously guard that vision from outside interference as you drive it home. Product thought leaders have a simple strategy for this: saying no a lot.
“No” is appealing because it paints the product leader as a kind of oppressed artist, who would surely produce a masterpiece if it weren’t for those pesky stakeholders. “No” is also appealing because it’s on-time, uncluttered, and slightly badass. But it comes with a mean trade-off: You’re sacrificing game-changing creativity for predictable efficiency.
The Play-Doh principle: Why even bad ideas need love
With a product backlog that’s boiling over, why pay attention to the new idea that offends your professional instincts? The answer lies in something I call the “Play-Doh Principle.”
When someone gifts you an idea — and ideas are the best kind of gifts — they’re rolling a big lump of red Play-Doh into a small lump of blue Play-Doh and then handing you a tightly packed purple ball. The red Play-Doh is that person’s execution vision, and the blue is their underlying concern.
The vast majority of people don’t have your training or experience, so their execution vision will fall short, often spectacularly. Their underlying concern, on the other hand, will always be valid. It’s your job to surgically separate the blue from the red. It’s the opposite of your job to toss the amalgamation into the wastebasket!
A marketing manager asks you to implement a big clunky pop-up menu with a sales message to first-time visitors. I’ve seen tech folks mock requests like this (“can you BELIEVE that idiot’s idea?”), but go beyond the execution vision and there’s a problem that needs solving.
I’ve stolen one technique for finding underlying concerns from the classic viral marketing tome, Made to Stick. The authors recommend barraging the subject with “why” until you drill down into their psychological core. “Why do you want a pop up menu?” Because I want to get people’s attention. “Why do you want to get their attention?” Because we’re running an expensive new ad campaign and I don’t want to lose those leads. “Why do you think we’ll lose those leads?” Because the last time we ran a banner campaign on the site, no one clicked on it! “Why do you think that is?” Because the site has so many links everywhere that first time users don’t know where to go. “Why–” Stop asking me so many damn questions!
Aha! Now that you have a solid underlying concern (“The website is too distracting to first time visitors”), you can brainstorm a superior execution vision. You might even find that a dozen items on your product backlog are reflections of the same underlying concern.
Hear a terrible idea? Stop. Ask if you’re dwelling too much on its execution vision and dig until you hit the underlying concern.
Great products thrive under chaos
There are hundreds of articles online about how to build the perfect product management process. Read them and you’ll learn which roadmap template to use, how to write a great user story, and how to prioritize a backlog. In sum, you’ll learn how to say no like a grandmaster, because detailed blueprints implicitly reject everything outside the lines.
The problem with a tidy process is that it’s optimized for incremental improvement instead of breakthrough creativity. Roadmaps don’t allow for u-turns, user stories don’t have space for improv, and prioritization models don’t value gut instinct. Breakthroughs suffocate under tight processes; they thrive under chaos.
How do you nurture chaos? First, relax on the planning. Customers only care about the quality of your end product, not on how efficiently you got there. Second, keep searching for the 10X idea. Settling for 10 percent with a pretty and predictable chart breeds complacency. Lastly, develop a habit of mishmashing. If you hear an interesting idea that’s in conflict with your other ideas, lower your shield and brainstorm how you can mishmash them together. Striking ideas together generates creative sparks. One of those sparks could be a bold new direction; another spark might be a new product!
Here’s a defining question: A UX designer shows you an absolutely bonkers plugin that has nothing to do with your product vision. You dwell on the plugin and wake up one night convinced that it’s the future of your product. Your heart pounds with excitement. Pushing for this new direction will destroy your deadline, reverse three months of progress, and alienate half your team. But your gut knows it’s a game-changer. Will you move Heaven and Earth to change course, or will you settle for the approved itinerary?
Hear a great idea in conflict with your beautifully crafted plan? Stop. Ask yourself if you’re trying to build a great process or a great product.
(Thanks to Michael Pinto, Owen Dugan, Jack Bettridge, and Mo Marshall for their feedback on this article, which eschewed nitpicks for game-changing ideas.)