Adventures in product development: The No Patrol

Fred Wilson’s post on saying no reminded me of my own intent to write about saying no in my world of developing big scale online dating and social media applications.
In many ways, my job–leading the product development/product management team–is like being the executive chef in a big kitchen–it’s my responsibility not only to determine what we will release, but the best order and sequence of what we will do–and where the resources will be applied.
My top-line criteria are clear:

  • Make the product support both the customer experience/value and the business needs
  • Choose the projects that offer the biggest impact for the level of effort
  • Balance short term initiatives with smaller, more focused pay-off, with longer, investment/development projects

But if I’m clear on all that, why do I spend some much of my time saying No? Often, I say No because

  • The project isn’t something we have the resources to do right now–and it’s not worth prioritizing over something else
  • It’s a nice to have, not a must have
  • The level of effort and the return don’t line up enough
  • It’s distracting from our core business objectives–for the year or the quarter
  • It’s overbuilding–we think it’s neat, but customers won’t notice
  • It’s too bleeding edge (this is a subset of overbuilding)–we love the idea but the novelty outweighs the business impact

And what kind of projects, you ask, get the Nos? (Well, this is the place where it hurts.)

  • Pet projects that are very Web 2.0 but either won’t drive the business
  • Projects we can wait a quarter or more to execute
  • Copy’ems–we think we need something cause a competitor has it (in that road lies madness–and waste)
  • Wrong scale–too big or too small for the moment (we try to right size these, then do them)

As someone who spent a lot of her career being the cutting-edge, push the mass market troublemaker, having a job being the one who says No, is an interesting experience–but it is also incredibly cool.

Working with a team of smart people who are passionate about the customer experience, the product AND the business objectives is tremendously fun–and sometimes, completely harrowing.

I’ve learned that No can cover a myriad of things:

  • We’re not going to do this right now.
  • We won’t do this ever, not on my watch.
  • This isn’t ready to be executed.
  • You need to think this through more.
  • What are you, nuts?
  • Oh geeze, I wish we could do this..but we’re not going to, not now.

Yep, I say No a lot more than I used to–but it makes it feel so good when I get to say yes.

Written in honor of my one year anniversary at Yahoo! Personals.

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  1. Live Chat says:

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  2. Dennis McDonald says:

    I think it’s interesting how I can relate completely to this — and I have absolutely no idea what “yahoo personals” is!
    Back in the day, when I managed programmers who developed leading edge products, I learned that it never paid to accept a “no” from a techie unless you got that response at least three times. I think you’re talking about something different here, though.

  3. Chris says:

    Sometimes you have to say no. So you can say yes. Focusing on what you do best means you sometimes have to say no. But what do you say no to. That is always a big question. It gets easier with experience, much easier. But, it is always a question. Good article on how you do it.

  4. Tiberius Brastaviceanu says:

    It is easy to say NO, but this is probably a reflex that we have to manage.
    Big organizations are very little permeable to new ideas coming from the outside. Innovation usually comes from the R&D department, or from acquisitions. Often enough, R&D departments are accused of not being able to think out of the box. Moreover, the new technology available on the market in the form of a start-up company represents around 2% of ideas generated by independent inventors. More then 98% of patentable ideas created by individual inventors are not commercialized. A big percentage don’t match the market, but a very important number of them don’t make it for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic value. There is a very large reservoir of valuable ideas untapped by corporate organizations, and missed by venture capitalists.
    R&D departments should be complemented by a Knowledge Management Department, that has as objectives knowledge mining (scientific literature, patents, industry associations, blogs, etc), and interfacing with independent inventors and product developers, as well as the structuring and integration of all valuable information generated within the organization or acquired from outside.
    There are a few reasons why big companies don’t pay attention to outside ideas.
    The first reason is related to a human factor, and is coupled to the organizational structure of that company. The members of the R&D department (or New Product Development department as it is sometimes called) are paid to generate new knowledge, and to design new products. They will look bad in front of the higher administration if more valuable ideas are coming from outside. They have to justify their paychecks somehow, and tend to push forward with more energy their own ideas. So there is obviously a conflict of interest there, which cannot be resolved otherwise then by creating a separate body that has more authority in terms of deciding which idea should be given priority over another.
    Second, there is this stereotype that the independent inventor is out of touch with the industry or the market. This is not entirely a myth. The great majority of new inventions don’t match very well the needs of a potential licensor in their initial form. But a few of them do, and they are overlooked because they are approached with a preconceived idea. And for those that seem to be misaligned with reality, there is a certain number of them that can be adapted easily if they are analyzed a little closer. Furthermore, if companies would have their eyes on the independent inventor, and if an open communication is established between them, the independent inventor would be more informed, and would design better products.
    Another reason is that some companies already have a queue of new products and product improvements already in development, and they don’t have enough resources to open other projects. So they make the business decision to close their eyes, or to stick their heads in the sand, and ignore whatever happens outside. This position is understandable, but can also come with surprises. Good ideas can go to your competitor, and if you don’t have room for them for the moment, you can at list acknowledge them, or try to delay their spread elsewhere.
    And finally, the reason is simply the lack of time. It is not a secret anymore that Americans are overworked. Investing in human resources is the best investment you can ever make.
    Once a new idea is given attention, it is then analyzed, and a decision is made weather it brings any value to the company or not. Before you say NO there is a process, and this process should be liberated from all the obstacles discussed.
    Knowledge management ideas have penetrated large corporations that can afford to pay specialized staff. It is more and more accepted that the outside world is an unlimited source of theoretical and practical knowledge. The R&D department creates a very specialized type of knowledge based on the valuable experience of the organization in a certain field, and driven by a deep understanding of the market. But often enough it is accused of not being able to think out of the box. To overcome this limitation, outside knowledge must be gathered, and integrated with the culture, the practices, and the strategy of the organization.
    Don’t train yourself in drawing pleasure from saying NO! If you don’t like the idea you might like the person behind it. Keep creative minds close to you! Consider the independent inventor’s community as valuable source of innovation and human resources. Create a network of independent inventors satellites, and maintain a good relationship with them. That can make the difference between you and your competitor.
    Tiberius Brastaviceanu (MS)
    Product Developer (Palo Alto, California)
    Inventor of the new Matchmaking Device System

  5. Ian Kennedy says:

    “Copy’ems” – I like it!

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