How do you kill a bad product idea?

by Mike Fishbein
June 30, 2017

When you look at your roadmap, how confident are you that the products and features on it will be successful? Furthermore, how confident are you that there aren’t better opportunities that you may be missing out on as a result of focusing only on what’s on your roadmap?

When we surveyed 140 product managers, 1 in 2 said that their C-suite has direct input for what goes on the roadmap. Input from executives is only less common than input from product owners, engineering teams, and the product managers themselves. Meanwhile, input from customers lies towards the bottom of the list.

Unfortunately, this is the inverse of how product managers would seemingly like it to be. When we asked them in the same survey who they’re eager to collaborate more with, customers topped the list, while the C-Suite was at the bottom.

The challenge for product leaders is that ideas from the C-Suite often lack customer validation and therefore put teams at risk of investing resources in ideas that won’t be successful. So when you suspect that your boss’s brainchild won’t be the hit he thinks it will be, how do you handle it?

To kill a bad idea, product managers must carefully consider stakeholders’ motives and interests and tailor their communication accordingly. I asked three experienced product leaders and consultants who have all had to confront eager executives about bad product ideas for their best advice on how to navigate these difficult conversations effectively.

  • Holly Hester-Reilly is a former Group Product Owner at Shutterstock who made the case to shut down Skillfeed, one of the company’s most publicized internal ventures, and now provides product management training and consulting through H2R Product Science.
  • Tami Reiss is a Product Lead at Justworks and a former consultant at Pivotal Labs who’s advised companies including JPMorgan and Humana.
  • Beth Temple is a Product Consultant who’s helped a range of companies in media, finance, retail and healthcare avoid wasting resources on bad ideas.

Below are four lessons I learned from them.

Measure the value you’re providing to customers

Perhaps the most essential strategy for killing bad ideas and ultimately building a successful product is to standardize customer development activities. If customers don’t want your product, they won’t use it, and the goals of the product almost certainly won’t be met. Therefore, establishing customer validation as an essential criteria for a product or feature to even make it onto the product roadmap can eliminate a substantial amount of the risk of unvalidated ideas.

Beth works tirelessly to gain users insights and determine if an idea is viable before even thinking about building it. This process includes building prototypes and surveying potential users to get actionable feedback. With this approach, Beth quickly learns if an idea is viable and, when it’s not, kills it before her clients invest additional resources.

For example, when a multinational publishing company wanted to develop online business courses, Beth naturally began with customer development. Before long, her research showed that potential users didn’t perceive the courses as being differentiated or more valuable than the courses that were already on the market. These insights saved the client potentially millions of dollars that would have been invested in developing and marketing the courses.

When working on a product that’s already launched, Holly emphasized the importance of looking beyond “vanity metrics”, such as page views and user counts, to truly understand if the product is valuable to customers. At Shutterstock, she worked alongside the data analysis team to evaluate metrics such as how much time users were spending watching courses on the Skillfeed platform and what percentage of users completed courses that they started. This helped her learn, and show stakeholders, that there was a difference between the perceived value (as measured by sign ups) and the actual value (as measured by usage and retention), meaning that the existing product was not meeting a big enough market need to grow it into a larger and more profitable business.

Align decisions with existing priorities

People don’t always like to hear that their idea isn’t a good one, especially if they’ve already invested considerable resources into it. To alleviate bruising egos or soliciting pushback, Holly recommended empathizing with stakeholders, the same way product managers are used to empathizing with their users. This can help product leaders present their recommendations in a more palatable manner.

After getting into a heated debate with a client that put her relationship at risk, Tami learned about the importance of understanding stakeholders’ priorities before breaking bad news. She had a client that had invested months of engineering time into an idea that she didn’t believe their users needed. Before making the recommendation to kill the product, Tami worked to understand the priorities of various stakeholders within the company and then crafted her message accordingly.

Ultimately, her client was willing to accept that the idea wasn’t going to succeed and they agreed to kill it. “Building that case of why it wasn’t a good idea was important and hard but it was also only something I could do after having been there for a number of weeks and learned about priorities,” she said.

Share evidence with stakeholders early and often

Ongoing communication with stakeholders reduces the risk of surprising them with a bold recommendations and helps them adjust their expectations and ease into the ultimate decision over time. One of the best ways to make your case is to provide evidence, in the form of qualitative or quantitative customer feedback.

Holly recommended updating stakeholders throughout the process of determining if an idea is viable, rather than simply delivering the bad news all at once at the end as one big “gut punch.” In an article on Product Management Insider, Holly recommended product leaders include three pieces of information when reporting to key stakeholders: “what we built, what we learned, and what we’re planning.” In the “what we learned” portion of the presentation, Holly suggests that product managers share “product insights such as updates on the competition, new data on product usage, or results of customer discovery research.” This approach can enable stakeholders to reach the right conclusion on their own accord.

Shift resources to a better opportunity

Killing a bad idea doesn’t mean the team needs to quit and go home. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Product management is all about prioritization, and killing a bad idea really just means focusing on a better idea. Presenting decisions in this context can make your case more compelling.

When Beth surveyed women between the ages of 30 and 45 to test an idea for a new loyalty program with her client, a lifestyle magazine publisher, she quickly discovered that there wasn’t a need for it. However, because she had been conducting a series of online surveys, she discovered a different opportunity in the process. She noticed in the survey data that about 9% of the user group was already participating in a subscription box program, much like Birchbox. This data encouraged them to test a new idea: a subscription box for “speciality cooks”. They ran a series of experiments that lead up to a beta launch of 100 boxes that sold out the first day.

Tami shared how she reframed her recommendation to kill a bad idea as an opportunity by telling her client “I think we can better utilize this team.” This helped her avoid bruising the executive’s confidence and got him excited to re-focus on a better opportunity.

The aspirational roadmap

When user research is separated from ideation, it’s easier to make more objective decisions about the viability of new product and feature ideas. Consultants and agencies can help analyze the data without the influence of internal stakeholders and break the news in a more diplomatic manner.

If an idea is not viable, it’s not the end of the world. Rather, it can be the birth of something new and better. To shift a team on to the next opportunity, Holly, Tami, and Beth recommend product managers develop empathy for stakeholders, share evidence throughout the research process, and align recommendations with the company’s priorities.

With these four lessons in mind, product leaders can focus their roadmaps on the best opportunities while keeping every stakeholder happy.

Mike Fishbein

Mike is the Host and Producer of This is Product Management, Alpha’s podcast, and the Editor of Product Management Insider, Alpha’s Medium publication.