Best Practices

Your (Product) Baby Is Ugly, and So Is Mine

It’s not personal, but your baby is ugly.

As product people, it can often feel like we are calling other peoples’ babies ugly when we have a new idea or we challenge whether the current product is the best it could be. Having launched more than 15 products, I’ve heard this phrase more times than I’d like to admit. I’m also guilty of using it to describe a product or two. But it truly isn’t personal. It’s part of our role as responsible product professionals. Take it from LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

The reality is, products should always be evolving and leveling up to meet shifting needs and new demands. This couldn’t be more critical than it is today. And product people have a real opportunity to be significant game-changers for their organizations—but that means getting vulnerable, having uncomfortable conversations, and challenging the way things have been done in the past.

Throughout my years of experience, I’ve learned that new ideas need a few things to help improve the odds of their success—and I’m happy to share them with you here.

Good ideas can’t stand alone

It’s easy to assume that the more ingenious the idea, the more autonomous it becomes. But the reality is, good ideas are only as strong as the team they’re paired with. In the wise words of Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Great ideas and great product people will not thrive (or survive) by operating in a vacuum. You have to develop a strong coalition of problem solvers who will not only help bring the idea to life, but also challenge it—to call your baby ugly if necessary. When you’ve found your coalition, you have to learn to lead with agility and empower them to bring ideas to the table.

Pair new ideas with new friends

Although your current team is undoubtedly capable of handling an update or rewrite, some of them are probably too attached to the original version. They helped raise that baby, after all. It doesn’t always present an ideal situation when your big idea is likely to upend their efforts—at least that’s how it can feel to them.

When that is the case, your new idea might need some new friends. You need internal advocates who will help rally support for this idea and inject fresh perspectives. You need to create spheres of influence and champions who will help usher in a culture of innovation (versus being constrained by legacy processes and dominant logic).

Keep in mind: I’m not advising you to terminate or replace anyone. However, product leaders looking to cultivate innovation need to be on the hunt for fresh talent to keep the ideas flowing and the team moving forward—and that talent can often be sourced internally.

Be wary of parity

With any new idea, there is a lot of pressure to deliver a solution that surpasses the original version. With so much at stake, new ideas often run the risk of getting caught up in what I call the “parity trap.” According to Catherine Shyu, a product manager at Google, “‘Feature parity’ should not be treated as a hard requirement when building for a new platform or redesigning a product. It’s a risky blanket statement that causes bloat by including all the mistakes you made while building the original product.”

The misguided requirement to achieve feature parity often stems from competitive and internal pressures: “Will our features list rival those of our competitors?” “Will the company get any backlash if we miss a certain feature?”

Although these questions must be considered, the real questions are, “What does our customer need, want, and expect? What will make their lives easier? How can we give them an unparalleled experience?”

Your goal from the start should never be parity—you’re trying to create something better. Instead, focus on developing strategies to get customers converted from the old product to the new.

Don’t shy away from candor

Simply put: Bold ideas require candor. In fact, candor will be your secret weapon for ensuring success. At the end of the day, the new product should be more aggregate, leverage newer technology, be prettier, and be made so it’s easier to be improved upon along the way. If these goals aren’t being met, everyone within your coalition should feel safe in delivering constructive feedback. They should also be prepared to receive it and adjust accordingly.

Encouraging candor lends itself to creating a more transparent culture, which can enhance a team’s overall performance. The more open and communicative the team, the greater the likelihood that corrections can be made quickly and efficiently, thus eliminating costly mistakes in the long run.

Remain focused on the problem

No matter how comfortable or established a company is, problems will never stop cropping up. Catmull substantiates this claim, stating, “What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

The point is, there will never be a shortage of problems to solve. It’s easy to get diverted. But this can lead to a constant loop of simply putting out fires—a futile endeavor that does little to move the needle for the company, and more importantly, your customers.

Just like the never-ending list of product feature requests, the team must prioritize which problem will deliver the biggest impact once solved—and then commit to assembling all energies around it.

As someone who is currently navigating a complete software rewrite, I can honestly say it never gets easier, but I certainly have become wiser. Introducing new ideas can often be an ugly, confusing, and gutting process. But surrounding yourself with a talented team who are comfortable with giving and receiving honest feedback is more than half the battle. After that, it’s a matter of keeping the problem you’re solving for in your line of sight and staying your course. Oh, and don’t be offended if someone calls your baby ugly along the way—it’s all part of the growing pains.