Juani Villarejo

Ideas aren't free

When you work in product design and development, different stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, management, etc.) let you know what they want even if you don't ask them.

They email you or talk to you (sometimes they write you an ASAP message through your chat app), in a similar scenario like these:

The curious thing is that usually they use the word "need" to describe what they "want", but they aren't describing what they need; what is their struggle that led them to tell you what they really (really) "want".

They confuse "need" with "want", and usually they aren't the same.

This list of "wants" is what are called "raw ideas", ideas that weren't processed or analyzed in order to understand the root causes of why they are pushing for them.

Whenever someone gives (or pushes) an idea, it should always be treated as a raw idea, as it involves some work in order to understand from which place they are giving it to you.

You have to do some work in order to not only understand what the idea is about, but also if it makes strategic sense to go forward with it and implement it after you discover the real need.

So we can say that ideas aren't an asset, as they don't produce any gain when you receive them, and there is huge uncertainty about what their outcome will be (if they have any positive outcome at all).

But they aren't free either because it takes time and resources to transform them into shaped work. Ideas are a liability until proven otherwise. Not only because act like inventory that depreciates very very fast, but they might have zero (or even negative) value when turned into shipped work.

I learned from Ryan Singer that the value chain from a raw idea to shipped work follows a process similar to this:

Raw Idea → Framing → Shaping → Hands-off → Building → Shipping

The phase from raw idea to framing is part of the demand-side of the business. Understanding the situational context and the expected outcome.

From shaping to shipping, it's about the supply-side. It's analyzing, planning, designing, and then implementing a feasible solution in terms of technical and business constraints.

When these stakeholders present you with ideas, they usually come in a supply-side form.

A chat, AI, a calendar, or a link in a part of the application are all possible solutions to a problem they aren't telling you about. They say they "want" that, but do they really "need" that ?

Probably the problem is in their heads or can be unconscious. They think they need that solution, but in fact they have a problem that they cannot express in words yet.

To paraphrase Deming's quote: "If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing."

We can say, "If you can't describe what your stakeholders are struggling with as context and outcome, you don't know what you're doing."

You, as a product person, need to make the work in order to make the work. That is, building a solution that is aligned with the expected outcome of your stakeholders while also efficiently using the resources you have at your disposal.

Adding to this idea of efficiently using the resources. Even if we wanted to, we don't have, as a product team, all the resources to pursue every idea that comes to the table. We have to choose our bets very carefully.

That's why the framing step is an important part that helps us identify which ideas might be worthy of betting.

Now, whenever someone wants to give me a suggestion or an idea, I encourage them to think slowly and fill out this framing template in order to present their idea. I didn't invent this template. I learned it from Ryan Singer in a Hand-off workshop that he gave some time ago.

Impulse Say something about what prompted this project and what makes it an opportunity right now. Basically, where did the idea come from, and why is it important now?

Current way Describe what people do today without this project, including workarounds and compensating behaviors. Everyone has workarounds to get their job done. If you don't know what they are doing now, you should try to do a little bit more research.

Struggle Make it clear what goes wrong with the current way or the workarounds.

Expected Outcome Summarize what this idea aims to achieve. If there are any constraints, you can list them here.

Not only does this template help me delegate part of the idea research and framing whenever someone wants to present an idea, but it also helped me to communicate and think more clearly when I wanted to suggest ideas to some other people on my team (we should eat our own soup).

Remember when you are pushing an idea on someone else that ideas aren't free, and just an idea isn't enough to make something; someone has to do the work to be able to build and ship it.

[1] At the time of writing this article (2023), AI was the golden buzzword that the market was (irrationally) valuing, like blockchain and the metaverse before.