Ideas Are Expensive
Don't Hoard Ideas Like a Hamster
👋 Hey, Paweł here. Welcome to the free edition of The Product Compass. Every week I share actionable tips for PMs.
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Our guest today is , a former Head of Product, trainer, consultant, and author of Driving Value with Sprint Goals (now available for pre-order).
He frequently speaks at Fortune 500 companies and international industry conferences. He has worked with many award-winning start-ups and scale-ups.
Maarten's an awesome guy who gave me a hand with my writing when I was just starting out two years ago.
After hitting 60K+ subscribers on Medium, he moved his content to on Substack, where he writes about Product Management, Agile, Scrum, and beating the feature factories.
I'm a regular reader of Pawel's newsletter and a big fan of his visualizations. His diagrams help you to understand something you don’t know easily. In case you already know, they may help you look at something with a fresh perspective. Allow me to give a good example.
When you look at this picture by Pawel:
You might think it’s just another visualization of time-to-market, lead time, and cycle time. But the implications are profound upon deeper inspection.
The diagram contains just three elements:
Cycle time. The time you begin working on something until it is done.
Lead time. The time work enters the Product Backlog or any other list of things to be worked on until it is done.
Time-to-market. The moment an idea is conceived until it is done (enters the market).
You might take these definitions at face value and leave it at that. But when you study the diagram, you can conclude that cycle time, lead time, and time-to-market are closely related.
When cycle time shoots up, the lead time increases. When the lead time increases, the time-to-market slows down.
What all three have in common: hoarding doesn't pay off. Having a huge pile of ideas, list of items to be worked on or a big reservoir of work-in-progress sets you up for failure.
And what do most companies do?
We treasure all of our ideas. We don't want to lose any of them. We store them in a long list we regularly examine and revisit to count ourselves rich. The spreadsheet ROI makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
We pile up all the work on our Product Backlog. We do not want to lose that pesky bug or that great improvement we will work on someday. Except someday never arrives, as the list keeps on growing like a hungry little caterpillar.
And then, when we plan our work, we bite off more than we can chew. Everybody is busting their butts off, and the team works on too many things simultaneously. Few work gets completed, as we are busy, instead of keeping the feature moving.
By keeping our attention on someday, we lose momentum and focus on today. All those ideas and features to be worked on slow us down tremendously.
All those ideas and features on your lists are like little monkeys on your back that you have to feed bananas*. They cost energy and effort to keep alive and happy on your back. And when you have many monkeys on your back, it also means it becomes more difficult to change direction or to move fast.
Here are some examples of monkeys asking for bananas:
“How’s it going with my idea? Did you include a business case yet?”
“When can we expect to work on the feature I suggested a few months back?”
“New government financial regulations have been introduced. Should we go through the list of ideas to see which we should keep or get rid of?”
Too many monkeys on your back mean we can't be opportunistic and change direction at any moment. All that banana-feeding destroys innovation, as there always is a hungry monkey on our back that distracts us from doing what matters most. And those monkeys, the older they are, the older their insights and learnings are that spawned them. Each monkey represents a snapshot in time of what we know at the time of creation. And that might be much less than we know now.
Example: Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever, a game that took over 14 years to build, was one of the biggest flops in video gaming history. They had too many ideas and tried to execute on too many of them.
Let's contrast this with Half-Life. They had many ideas, but they eliminated the bad ones and polished the good ones through playtesting. They even delayed the game when playtesting told them the game wasn’t good enough. They created a level with the core mechanics of the game and all the weapons and used that to get feedback on all their ideas. They kept and improved what worked, and got rid of what didn't.
Half-life ultimately won many game of the year awards.
What should we be doing instead?
We should eliminate ideas ruthlessly. Do you know the saying 'ideas are cheap'? That's a lie. Ideas are expensive and they become more expensive as you hold on to more ideas and for longer.
Set a clear Product Vision. The Product Vision provides direction, and the more clear your vision, the better you can eliminate ideas and work.
Have a Product Strategy. A Product Strategy is not a plan. It's where we choose to win. It allows us to apply the right focus, and empowers us to eliminate ideas and work.
Do discovery. Coding an idea and launching it to production is a slow way to find out you're wrong. Pawel recently launched a great Discovery course you can find here that will teach you the ropes.
Avoid piles. You can't cook in a kitchen with piles of food and dishes. Over time mold will grow, and you will no longer be able to cook. The same applies to your ideas and list of work. Over time they become stale and moldy. Keep your kitchen clean and avoid piles if you want to serve customers swiftly.
Product Vision and Strategy may not be something you’re able to influence depending on your seniority level or position in the organization, but at least you can try to avoid creating piles and do discovery. In essence, discovery is about investing effort in ideas proportionately to your confidence in their success.
This is beautifully depicted in the truth curve by Giff Constable:
When you have little confidence, you should do cheap things and invest little effort to gain better information. And then, as you gain more confidence, you walk up the truth curve until you gain enough confidence that you believe it’s warranted to write slow and expensive code. Or you don’t work on it at all because you discover it isn’t worth the effort or rework it into something else entirely.
In the words of Tyler Durden from Fight Club:
"All the things you own end up owning you.” - Tyler Durden
Make sure you don’t have too many monkeys on your back you have to feed bananas, as they will make you go bananas. Don't hoard ideas or make long lists of what you will be doing. Everything you desire to do will come at the expense of what you are capable of doing.
Don’t be like this hamster. It’s hard to talk or walk when your mouth is filled with food. You won’t be able to keep the hamster wheel turning. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Ideas are expensive. Don’t worry about not having enough ideas. You will always have enough ideas and the good ideas will come back. Worry about having too many ideas or a too long list of things you want to do. Get rid of ideas or execute on them quickly before it’s too late.
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Take care, Paweł