Is It Innovative or Another Bad Idea?

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 10 Issue 1Imagine the following situation: You are meeting with a client or several stakeholders within your own business, proposing new product features that you believe are truly innovative. You worked hard preparing for the presentation, combining late nights, early mornings and endless mockups. Halfway through the meeting, you come up against opposition: “I’m sorry, but this just isn’t going to work. It’s a bad idea.”

What happened? Why such a bold statement? More importantly, who is right? Everyone in the room wants to know: Is it innovative or just another bad idea?

As product managers, we spend a large amount of time working collaboratively with others, researching our user base and presenting ideas to build products that customers will love. The aforementioned scenario is not uncommon and is a healthy part of any workshop or discussion. There must be opposition and a representation of different viewpoints in order to force out the best ideas. But wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to impartially find out if your idea is a hero or a zero, beyond a reasonable doubt?

There actually is a way to remove the doubt—and it can completely shift the way we work.

Yahoo’s Controversial Decision

To introduce the concept, let’s look back at a recent widely discussed idea: Yahoo’s decision to ban working from home. Did you think that was innovative or a bad idea?

I was shocked at the news. What on earth were they thinking? We all had a Yahoo email address in the ‘90s and, deep down, we all want to like Yahoo. But it’s not always easy, and this seemed like another reason to point a finger and have a good laugh. In the space of a few hours, bloggers and journalists caught on and the story could be read over and over again. A quick online search for this story returns an enormous amount of results—many of them saying what a terrible idea it was.

The story continued to gain steam, and a second wave of people came on board with their opinions. Even my hero, Richard Branson, joined in to say he was perplexed. Water coolers all around the world were surrounded by people talking about Yahoo and its questionable choice. 

But then something happened.

More details came from Yahoo that soon gave a different perspective on the situation: “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo, right now.” Translated, it was a calculated solution to a very specific problem at Yahoo, nothing else—a problem that only affected an estimated 2 percent of Yahoo staff.

So how did Yahoo know there was a problem? The answer was in the data. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is famous for being seriously data driven. She had analyzed the unimpressive virtual private network (VPN) log history for remote employees and very clearly saw the issue. The remote working arrangement was directly opposing the ultimate Yahoo goal, so it had to go.

The memo to Yahoo employees, which quickly found its way onto the Internet, read: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” Later Yahoo said of its employees: “They’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

Was it innovative or just another bad idea? We all had immediate opinions, but we weren’t privy to all the details.

Without any kind of factual basis, it’s guesswork. Whether it’s guessing based on previous experience, on other similar situations or gut instincts, it’s still just guessing. Yahoo, on the other hand, was working toward a specific goal and identifying problems based on data. Innovation is defined as the introduction of new ideas that solve a genuine problem. This was true innovation from Yahoo, and they had data to back it up.

Data Is Back

There were two main reasons the Yahoo story gained such publicity:

  1. People didn’t understand there was a problem at Yahoo. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
  2. The solution was so specific, it was easy to assume there were other better options.

Both reasons were addressed when the data and goals were revealed. The attention to the story crumbled; we were trumped by data.

Data is a great leveler. It enables a junior developer to question a CEO with authority; he who has the data rules the world. Data isn’t just numbers and digits, it’s people, actions and behaviors. For example, the digital web design team who worked on the Mitt Romney U.S. presidential campaign, after conducting A/B testing on how two different versions of a web page performed, stated, “This team has data, not opinions.”

In many instances, it is possible to propose an idea and use data to find out its value in a matter of days or hours. This has turned product development and user experience from an art into a science. Creating data is now a bragging right: The more tests you run, the more you learn and the quicker you can build products that customers will love. The lean startup movement has given this thinking a lot of attention recently. Data, analytics and learning mean less guessing and rushed opinions.

One company known for building innovative products by focusing on data is Mayer’s former company, Google. In 2009, designer Douglas Bowman famously quit the company, sharing on his blog: “Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better.

I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. … I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.”

Clearly, not everyone is a fan of data in measuring innovation, but data can be the key in proving or disproving your idea.

Becoming Data Driven

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat
           –Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865


You can’t measure against success until you know what success looks like. Consider the following questions:

  1. What is the overall vision for the product? What are you trying to achieve?
  2. What will prove that you are meeting the vision? What are the indicators that you can measure your success by?
  3. What metrics or behaviors are you able to influence in order to drive the key performance indicators (KPIs)?

Here is how Yahoo would have answered these questions about working from home:

  1. What is the overall vision for the product, what are you trying to achieve? “To become the absolute best place to work.”
  2. What will prove that you are meeting the vision? “Communication and collaboration.”
  3. What metrics or behaviors are you able to influence in order to drive up the KPIs? “We need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

By employees being present in the office (quantitative measurement), communication and collaboration would be improved (qualitative measurement), which would contribute to Yahoo becoming the “absolute best place to work.” Using data to identify the problem is as important as using it to validate the solution. No doubt Yahoo will be wholly measuring the changed behavior to prove or disprove the chosen solution.

Take Control of the Question

Becoming data driven is not a sure way to prove that your ideas are innovative. It’s the complete opposite. Using data is a way to expose the truth, even if it’s not what you expected. It gives you authority and a better reputation with those you work with.

True innovation, compared to perceived innovation, will stand up to the test. In order to build products that customers will love, we need to rely more on measuring and less on guessing.

So is it innovative or just another bad idea? Let the data be your guide.

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  • Paul Brooks (@okpaul) is a UK-based, award-winning product manager for a NASDAQ listed profit optimization company. Specializing in user experience, he acts as the design authority across the company?s suite of B2B web-based applications. He studied in the United Kingdom, France and the United States and previously worked at a digital marketing agency and as a freelance designer for public-relations agencies.

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