Responding to Raw Ideas

Ryan Singer, designer and developer at Basecamp, recently released a web-only book entitled Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. I’ve been working my way through it, and one passage about responding to new product improvements stood out:

Responding to raw ideas

Our default response to any idea that comes up should be: “Interesting. Maybe some day.” In other words, a very soft “no” that leaves all our options open. We don’t put it in a backlog. We give it space so we can learn whether it’s really important and what it might entail.

It’s too early to say “yes” or “no” on first contact. Even if we’re excited about it, we shouldn’t make a commitment that we don’t yet understand. We need to do work on the idea before it’s shaped enough to bet resources on. If we always say “yes” to incoming requests we’ll end up with a giant pile of work that only grows.

It’s important to keep a cool manner and a bit of a poker face. We don’t want to shut down an idea that we don’t understand. New information might come in tomorrow that makes us see it differently. On the other hand, showing too much enthusiasm right away can set expectations that this thing is going to happen. We may not be able to commit to it once we’ve put it into context with everything else we want to do.

This is very well articulated. As I mentioned in my Programming Debt Paid post, we had that backlog:

It became clear that this programming “debt” needed to be paid off for us to continue to grow smoothly. And for me personally, it has weighed on me that there was this backlog of unfinished projects. It made it harder for me to feel comfortable taking time off knowing that there were certain situations that the team wasn’t well equipped to handle on their own.

For years, we just had a massive “programming plan” Google Doc that we’d add any good idea to (after ensuring it was feasible and after determining a rough time estimate). But there were huge downsides to this: we always had a huge backlog, and we’d sometimes succumb to bumping the latest and greatest to the top of the list, just because we were excited about it in the moment.

As they mention in the book, important ideas always come back:

Really important ideas will come back to you. When’s the last time you forgot a really great, inspiring idea? And if it’s not that interesting—maybe a bug that customers are running into from time to time—it’ll come back to your attention when a customer complains again or a new customer hits it. If you hear it once and never again, maybe it wasn’t really a problem. And if you keep hearing about it, you’ll be motivated to shape a solution and pitch betting time on it in the next cycle.

Since catching up, I’m taking a much more mindful approach. The techniques described in Shape Up are helpful because they’ve built this very successful project planning framework that we can emulate. I do get a lot of interesting product requests from my partners, our employees, and our customers, as well as ones that I think of myself. The “soft no” approach is perfect. As is letting something get suggested a few times before acting on it.

These are really difficult skills to master, especially when you’re the project manager and developer (and owner) like I am. So when a book like Shape Up comes along I’m grateful for the opportunity to see how a successful company does things.

2 comments on Responding to Raw Ideas

  1. Rob says:

    It’s a great tactic. All too often recency gets conflated with important and it’s totally demoralising to have a backlog that is growing faster than your ability to complete items.

    My sister & her boyfriend are both science teachers. They’re both highly educated (masters/phd), experienced, have worked at similar schools and get paid roughly the same amount.
    There is, however, one glaring difference between them – my sister often has piles of work to do whereas her boyfriend is one of the most relaxed, laid-back yet “on top of his shit” people you could ever hope to meet. Earlier this year I asked him why their workload was so different – his answer was that he doesn’t do anything unless he’s asked to do it 3 times. I said doesn’t that mean people get annoyed with you, and aren’t you stressed about letting people down?
    He said the majority of the time, nothing ever comes of it. Those one-off requests, the stupid ideas, the “wouldn’t it be nice if…?” never get brought up again and he never has to deal with them.

    I’ve got my own wishlists – in notebooks, various to-do apps, text files and so on and I often wonder how much it would matter if I simply threw them all away. Perhaps the good ideas would resurface at some point and he pointless stuff would be forgotten. Perhaps it’d be a big weight off my mind. Perhaps.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      That’s a great story about your sister and her boyfriend! I’ll be re-telling that one for sure 🙂

      I feel the same way about all of my lists and files. My current thought is – it’s fine to keep them for reference if I’m compelled to look at them (I still have all of our programming project notes and they would come in helpful if we ever tackled those projects in the future), but I try not to let them dictate what I’m doing and to only plan for the short-term (the next few weeks). It’s incredible how much things change once you have time to think about an idea for a while, or talk to a few more people. I got so worn out by our backlog that I am strongly resisting letting another one get started.

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