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products, development, management…

Dealing with doubt and over-confidence in building something new

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Walking the new product development tightrope between confidence and doubt.  Symbolized by a woman walking a tightrope across a big city skyscape.When you’re creating a new product or service, whether as a startup or within a big company, you’re going to be faced with doubters from every direction.  People on the team, your boss, your peers, your investors, friends, family.  Even when the first outsiders see the product they will probably be more doubtful than supportive.  The most important thing is to avoid doubting yourself.

If you thought up the idea, got funding or approval to go forward then persevering is a key part of getting the work done.  The doubting you’ll most certainly get can feel almost crippling.  In the extreme it turns into those increasing moments of self-doubt and ultimately a loss of confidence.  That self-doubt can prevent new ideas, new products, from growing to success.

The converse of this behavior is to dig your heels in and to just stubbornly move ahead as though no one has expressed any doubt.  You’re getting stuff done.  As things progress there’s a good chance you’re increasing the distance between you and your early supporters-but-doubters.  That over-confidence can prevent new ideas, new products, from making small but necessary changes that can substantially increase their chances for success.

Finding the right balance between caving in and stubborn is something everyone can work on.  There’s no right answer, but you can look for signs or signals that your balance needs some tuning.

5 ways to doubt

Doubts are going to be everywhere in a new venture.  In new products there are a few common doubts that you should be mentally prepared to hear.  If you know these are coming you can use that as a chance to consider how you are going to engage in a discussion about that sort of doubt—not how you dispense with or handle the doubt, but how you can talk about why you might have a different point of view.

  • Been done before.  Very few new products are “new to the world inventions”.  Even things that are new to the world often solve pretty well-known problems.  In reality most all products are incremental when you step back and consider the full context and landscape.  From Velcro® to the Swiffer ® to Facebook and Instagram, these products were incredibly innovative but by and large the innovation amounted to new combinations of some new technologies aimed at solving somewhat known problems.  You can get yourself in quite a spiral if you think your product needs to be an invention versus an innovation.  Thinking about your innovation and value delivered can help you through this.
  • Just a feature.  In new services in the tech industry we constantly see people saying that a new product is “just a feature”.  There’s always some truth to that, but it is because it has to do—as a consumer you don’t want every service that comes along reinventing everything around the social fiber for example and as a company you don’t want to spend resources on work outside your value proposition.  Finding the balance between your unique perspective and value and simply adding all the stuff around your value is something to work through and be clear about.
  • No one wants that.  The focus group of one is both your biggest asset and biggest liability in building a product.  If you let one person, from your best friend to your spouse to your boss, convince you that no one wants a new product then too many ideas will fail to make it to fruition.  As the person taking the risk to seek funding or get approval for an idea, you owe it to yourself to keep pushing.  When the focus group of one is yourself and you’re taking the risk that is the very definition of entrepreneurial thinking.  You saw a problem, an opportunity, or a solution.  There’s always a time to take a step back but at the early stages a focus group of one that is yourself is pretty important.
  • Priced wrong.  All new technology products are going to be either too cheap or too expensive.  If you’re building a new device, it will always be too expensive in the early stages because the industry is, as we all know, based on economies of scale.  A new service or app is always going to struggle to simply charge people or find space for advertising from the start.  Too cheap/too expensive is going to happen.  Rather than just punt or just restate the known answers (from it will scale to freemium) perhaps you can differentiate your answer to these concerns with some novel or detailed thinking.
  • Doesn’t fit with strategy.  In a large organization you are, with 100% certainty, going to run up against “strategy” as you propose your new idea.  This can be a frustrating experience to a champion of a new idea (or new way to solve a problem).  You can throw up your hands in a huff.  You can claim “innovator’s dilemma”.  You can talk about stifling bureaucracy.  The important thing to do during this doubting moment is to be informed about these strategic issues.  These are real to a large company because a strategy is a unique part of what a large organization delivers to customers—it is more than a collection of products, but the relationship and between them and reasons they are offered.

5 ways to be over-confident

While many from the outside will be doubting you, the most important thing to do is overcome your natural reaction to dig your heels in and be stubborn.  When doubt is expressed it is your chance to engage in a dialog and to calmly evangelize your idea while hearing the doubt as feedback.  We all know that when you’re pushing a new idea there are things to do better.  This is especially true when you’re in the early stages and developing your “story” as to why the idea should get turned into a product.  What are some things you might be over-confident about that the doubters might actually be saying?

  • Wasn’t clear.  In talking about a potential new product the most common challenge is a problem between your brain and your mouth or keyboard :-)  In other words, as crystal clear as the ideas are in your head, when you say them or write them down it just seems like other people are not “getting it”.  Your own excitement and enthusiasm, or your own “ah ha” moment, isn’t getting translate into a pitch or description that others can grok.  After the third or fourth person saying they are confused or your conversations are “all over the map” then maybe you should take a step back and work on the description and story behind the idea?
  • Didn’t study the competition.  When folks say an idea isn’t new or has been done before, then it could be that you are not expressing the unique attributes of your idea in a compelling way or perhaps your unique attributes are not unique enough (or valued).  It could also be that you’re not expert enough on the competition.  Maybe in your excitement you missed a competitor or you dismissed a competitor too quickly?  Keep in mind the competition isn’t standing still so maybe things have changed from when you looked?
  • Design is weak.  Software products often get pitched before the design and flow of usage are understood.  For a product that is solving a known problem in a new way, the design is a critical element of what you’re offering.  In that case it really isn’t enough to pitch the idea as “don’t worry we’ll do a better design later” because your design is integral to the offering.  For any product that is entering a commodity space with a new twist on uniqueness (branding, distribution, pricing, bundling, etc.) the design of those elements (yes pricing can be designed) need to be more than sketches since those aspects are key to what you’re doing.  Without that level of detail you might be missing the crux of the doubt.
  • Trying to do too much.  “Boiling the ocean” is a common refrain when experienced people see an idea for a product that involves touching many known areas of existing products.  If you’re service starts off with the need to build out a whole infrastructure before you can even start to show your unique value or if you have a feature list a mile long, then there’s a good chance the doubt is not focused on your idea, but on the scope of what you’re trying to do.  Everyone loves big ideas, but rebuilding the world as the pre-requisite is a sign that you can do a better job scoping the first milestone or so of work.
  • Clinging to the wrong elements.  Many times in talking about an idea and in the early stages, every single choice you make is critical.  As the one originating the idea you tend to think of your product as a finely balanced set of decisions, each carefully interrelated.  As things progress, you owe it to yourself and doubters to make sure you are revisiting some choices.  Do you really need that architecture?  Is that UI widget really that important?  Is it critical that you have that feature?  In most every new product you can see something that you know was an early choice and doesn’t quite fit anymore.  Be the person leading the charge to back out of choices that are no longer key to delivering the value proposition.  You’re in a unique position to decide what can really go.

Keep in mind

From the moment you think up an idea until the first working models/prototypes are used by potential customers you’re going to run into doubts from all corners.  It is easy to lose confidence.  It is easy to become over-confident.  Balancing these two extremes is an important part of being brave enough to keep pushing forward.  New ideas can’t get turned into products without the skills to navigate this complex and emotional stage in product development.

Two things are always part of these early stages and important worth keeping in mind.

First, validation is hard to come by.  You will get tons of support and even encouragement from those around you.  But validation won’t come for a while.  Hang tight.

And second, product development is hard.  No one said building a new product or getting a big company to break into a new business (or redo an old business) is easy.  There are no right answers.  There’s no certainty.  Doubts come from shaking things up.

–Steven

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 27, 2013 at 7:00 am

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14 Responses

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    Fatma

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    Milena

    August 28, 2013 at 6:33 pm

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    Mason

    August 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm

  6. می‌گه:ba salam khedmate duste aziazm va arze tasliyat khedmate hameye memaranomid be in daram ke nabege hayi mesle ostadane marhumemun gabl az fout shodan jahani beshan va gadreshuno bedunan ba tashakor az etela resaniye shoma

    Amit

    August 3, 2013 at 5:21 am

  7. I do apologize for rlenyipg in English, don’t know Hebrew but could read all the info via Google Translate The problem with the length of the name is not due to the Icelandic naming regulation, it is due to the fact that the computer system that was installed many years ago didn’t accept more than 31 characters. This made the government officials “ban” people to use above 31 characters. The only substitute is using only the first letter as Guy mentioned above.I know this sounds very stupid (it is) but this has been a problem for a long time but will be fixed soon since it is most likely illegal.Being Icelandic I do like the fact that we don’t use family names. This gives each individual the option of becoming something by his own but not “because he belongs to the Jonsson family” or something like that. Family names where used in Iceland by rich immigrants that ruled a lot the business in Iceland before we became indepented. Those names still exist with some individuals but we couldn’t care at all. Some form of Icelandic family names also have been used as with Laxness, Eldje1rn etc. but people will always have to use their parents name as well (people can choose between using your fathers or mothers name in your last name. By default fathers name is added to your name but it can be changed. So if my mothers name was Helga then I would be Helguson (the name to Helgu Helga changes according to Icelandic Grammar).a0

    Jack

    March 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

  8. Sorry I didn’t get back right away it was a lovely wekeend here (70 s F) and we couldn’t sit inside and look out at it, we had to be out and having that blessed sun on our skin! (of course, today, it’s pouring).It’s nice to see everyone here! Thanks Maureen, for thinking of this! I see Kayper and Jane Humphrey and Betty Lou! Jas and John G., who we don’t see very often! It’s good to know you all are still there!If you’re checking in John. Jim and I send you our best! Love to you and Graham!Maureen, you can reach me at:

    Robert

    March 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm

  9. nice ways ,now i know doubting in creating new things is common

    Anonymous

    March 2, 2013 at 11:27 pm

  10. Excellent post, thanks Steve.

    Hans Perera

    March 1, 2013 at 8:23 am

  11. reminded me of a quote: ““Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” (typically attributed to Howard Aiken)

    Mikhail Garber

    February 27, 2013 at 10:21 am

  12. To me the challenge of “It’s just a feature” is that it leaves you open to the competition. A perfect example of this is cloud storage. There are companies out there that are trying to make money by offering cloud storage services. But their business model is easily undercut if (for example) when the OS vendor decides to offer the same feature – think iCloud and Dropbox. If your product falls into the “just a feature” category, your challenge is to find a way to provide value add to ensure that your customers stick with your product instead of moving to the more tightly integrated solution provided by the OS vendor. How does Dropbox compete when Apple offers free iCloud integration on both OSX and iOS devices, allowing customers to seamlessly access their files from whatever apple device that they own? Or how does Instagram compete once Facebook adds filters etc to their social media platform?

    This is absolutely a manageable problem, but if your product in fact *is* “just a feature”, you REALLY need to go into the business understanding how you’re going to differentiate once someone decides to add your feature to their product. Otherwise you’re just waiting for someone else to put you out of business.

    Larry Osterman

    February 27, 2013 at 8:40 am

  13. First, excellent post. From your perspective where does Window 8 and RT fit into this? I’m not trying to troll but this post perfectly highlights the path of Windows 8; reintroducing the tablet PC concept for a market with a preconceived idea of what tablet behavior is. I’d also like to know your opinion on the Microsoft Courier project and whether it fell into the overconfidence side of the equation.

  14. As an IT PM at a large consultancy this post rings true on many levels. At the moment I am knee deep in self-doubt with my current project. Thank you for the post – it is nice to have a clear voice when things are, for the moment, a tad blurry.

    Product development is most definitely hard. Thanks again.

    michael

    February 27, 2013 at 8:08 am


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