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Building Someone Else’s Bad Idea

We all know we should be market-driven, but sometimes we don’t have a choice. What happens when we inherit someone else’s bad idea? Imagine this: The decision to build a new software product, replicating a competitor’s product, is made abroad in the corporate office. The product team knows it is a folly to build a product from the ground up and compete in a saturated marketplace. Plus, there’s no distribution capability to make the product a success (meaning no sales channel). The challenge is how to satisfy company executives and motivate the team, knowing it’s unlikely that the project will succeed.

Trickle-down decisions pose a serious challenge if you’re tasked with building something you know is flawed in some serious way. But it happens to all of us at some point in our careers. Here are some tips for making the most of a bad situation. 

Accept the Inevitable and Convince Yourself

Executives and upper management have commitments they are required to make; whether it is to a board, a venture capitalist or to the employees of their company. They also feel the pressure of keeping people happy and employed and of keeping their jobs. That said, sometimes the decisions they make may appear to be abstract or irrational. Maybe they are too removed from the day-to-day work, or fail to see what people engaged in the work regularly experience.

Those at the top have the financing to create projects, both good and bad. They also drive strategy, which may not always map to what the people on the ground know to be true. And sometimes your best laid counterargument goes unheeded.

When you don’t feel like your opinion matters, it can be hard to feel motivated or to inspire your team to engage with an idea or project. But the truth is, you will probably end up working on the ill-fated project, regardless of your opinion, so your attitude matters.

Yes, the moment of surrender can be hard to swallow. But in the end, the faster you come to this point, the faster you can redirect your efforts to turn someone’s bad idea into your team’s good idea. Executives will appreciate your positive, can-do attitude, and you have to trust that your good work and effort will pay off in the end. 

Don’t Ask Permission; Reimagine the Project

Respect the initial idea because that is the right thing to do. That said, the product team, customers and often sales, know how to translate or reimagine these projects or ideas into something that might be more beneficial to end users. Focus on your distinctive competence. How will you stand out? Even if you only have a small budget, be sure to build a minimal viable product, ship it, get feedback, adjust if needed, rinse and repeat.

Follow your heart. Be creative and remember that the executives who instructed you to do the project might not be as married to it as you think. They are inundated with so many other things, all they want to hear is that you’re on budget, on time and there are no major issues. 

Getting market feedback quickly allows you to pivot to meet the needs of the market. Be creative, be brave, break a few rules, show initiative and, even if Olga in procurement gets mad at you for not having a PO, just play dumb. It will be worth it. As long as you can map your experiments to the general outline of the initial project and demonstrate your achievement by whatever metrics you are being judged, you will be a success (and Olga will forgive you).

Build a Dream Team

If you are going to break a few rules, and not always ask permission, you must have buy-in from your team. In fact, most ideas on how to innovate should come from your team if they are engaged with customers and have a clear view of the company’s strategy and objectives.

Because working on a bad project can negatively impact team morale, bring your team in on the secret. They will love being part of a renegade team. They will love the intrigue. 

Make sure you recruit the best team possible. It’s not about how many resumes you review or ensuring that you use the best behaviorally-based recruiting questions. It’s about creating a vibe around your team that makes everyone else want to participate: other parts of the organization, your customers, even finance. 

Your team should want to come to work because they understand in very real terms how they contribute. Connect them with the end users so they can hear real stories from real humans; that way they will understand how what they do matters. Communicate every win and loss. Trust them to know the truth about the work. 

This new project is that fresh slate opportunity to reset bad habits and raise the bar on team performance. All those in-vogue development methodologies can be tested and refined with a newly formed team that carries no baggage. 

Work is tedious if you make it that way, so make it fun. Celebrate successes and milestone achievements. Pause and occasionally check the fun factor at meetings. Mix up your meeting format. Why not get some local froyo while doing your sprint planning meeting? A backlog party sounds much more appealing that a backlog refining meeting. You can even add fun through gamification elements. Making custom avatars helps reduce stress; that’s a personal testimony.

For one such project, we formed a team of open-minded, forward-thinking engineers, QA testers, UX designers and content writers. We moved everyone from their siloed cubicles into a shared team space. Then we created a team name, room name, nicknames and team t-shirts. It helped us form an instant bond. We also experimented with new tools, technologies, programming languages and techniques like agile scrum, kanban, lean, pair programming, continuous release strategy, test driven development and automated testing. Not everything worked, but our team learned and grew together. It wasn’t always easy or without debate, but we became the most successful, highly regarded team within the company. In fact, many others tried to emulate what we pioneered.

Fail Fast

Be honest. Trust. If something isn’t working tell your team as quickly as possible. Fail fast. Make sure they understand that failure isn’t a bad thing, it’s inevitable. Wash away the shame of making a decision that didn’t work out because emerging information changed the situation. It happens in your personal life, so why wouldn’t it happen in your work life too? By not sticking to a plan or a process, you open up a world of possibility because no one will feel ashamed.

People want to feel valued. They want to feel that they contribute in a way that is important to the organization. If you can create an environment in which people have short-term goals and can easily pivot if something changes, they are more likely to be able to absorb change, uncertainty and building someone’s bad idea.

Metrics Matter

If you are not aligned to financial goals, budget guidelines and performance measures, the “don’t ask permission” strategy will never work. You must provide meaningful reporting to senior management or you will become suspect, thwarting any intention to do the right thing under the radar. You do not want the eye of senior management watching every move you make; it stifles creativity and an agile approach to solving problems.

Remember, it is not about the truth, it is about the story. Whether you are talking to the board of a large organization or to a Silicon Valley VC firm, they care about the story more than they care about the truth. Metrics are fluid, flexible and can translate into many varied outcomes.

Revenue projections may be unrealistic. Timelines may be impossible, and hyper productivity will be a part of the conversation. But you can manage these conversations if you tell a good story. Working with finance is key in this strategy. If you are lucky enough to have a good finance team who understands your vision, they can assist in building the metrics story to help manage expectations.

Your Success from Their Bad Idea

Open-mindedness, creativity and bravery are critical in the traditional corporate structure. Remember, this process and the tactics necessary to turn a bad idea good is only successful if the individuals involved are honest and genuinely want a positive outcome, whether they get credit for it or not. If you build good teams, ensure they feel connected and responsible for their work, you can take ownership of that bad idea instead of feeling shackled by it. Ultimately, making an organization successful and bringing executives’ ideas to fruition—while still serving the market and your customers—is a skill that will lead to team success.

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