Not Just No, but Hell No

No. Nope. Absolutely not. I’m not doing it. Piss off.

So I did a terrible thing, and I may as well get the confession out of the way. I printed out a quote – from a business author, no less – and handed it out to my team at work. Seriously, this is the lowest ebb of cringe-worthy corporate bossitude, and I did it. I did it, I liked it, and God help me, I’ll probably do it again.

Behold, I am become Michael Scott.

Look, let me take a step back. I can’t justify this thing I’ve done, but I can at least provide a little context. The quote was from Jim Collins, whose made more money than I’ll ever see in one place in my life by writing business and management tomes like the massively popular Good to Great, all of which I’ve actually managed to avoid reading. I come here neither to praise nor bury the guy – I’m only peripherally familiar with his published work and he’s more successful than I’ll ever be, so as easy as it would be to take some rote swipes at the man, it would be a cheap move with no basis other than him being popular. But, I have read a few of his interviews and think pieces over the years, and they’re not empty of good ideas, one of which I’ve actually adopted as a kind of professional mantra. The quote: “You need a laser-like focus on doing first things first. And that means having a ferocious understanding of what you are not going to do.”

See, I manage product strategy and design for a software company, which means that I have one of the most fundamentally misunderstood jobs out there. In essence, people believe that my team and I sit around all day dreaming up cool shit, which we then get to design and implement. This idea is widely held, to the point that an unusual number of people want to come work for me, a phenomenon that I can’t in any way ascribe to my personality. It’s also totally wrong. In fact, it’s very nearly the opposite. My actual job, or at least ninety percent of it, is trying to get people to stop dreaming up cool shit and, if they do so anyway, to at least, please, for God’s sake, not waste time and resources trying to build it.

Here’s a basic fact of business: the world needs cool shit like I need a hole in my head. Designing good products is absolutely, emphatically not about designing cool shit. It’s not about making things that are exciting. It is one hundred percent not about vision. You can’t swing a dead cat in any tech district in America without hitting a broke visionary, usually working for someone else and wryly lamenting the failure of their great idea (it was never wrong, by the way, just early, which is the same thing as wrong but sounds better). Cool shit, in a word, is not how good shit works.

What you have to do in real life, in real business, is solve actual problems, and solving actual problems is a drab, unsexy trade. This is because real business problems, in the main, are drab, unsexy things. Solving them, besides being drab and unsexy, tends to be difficult and expensive. If they haven’t been solved already, it’s generally because there’s at least one meaningful and substantive barrier to doing so, which has defeated smart people before. To succeed, you’ll need to assemble a rare combination of brains and balls, backed by more money than you’d think it possible to need, and an ungodly willingness to endure labor and suffering. And all of this, it’s important to remember, will usually be done in the service of something wildly unglamorous.

All of which is okay, as long as you know what you’re getting into. But it means that the urge to innovate for innovation’s sake must always be resisted. And this is blasphemy in the technology world, where innovation, vaguely defined, is seen as a sort of virtue unto itself, awkwardly stitched into an endless procession of faux-moral narratives about “transformative change” and whatever the fuck ever. But much of this is simply gesture, songs of self-praise raised skyward by the would-be innovator. Innovation without a problem, preferably a problem measured in concrete suffering, financial loss or, in the best cases (at least for me), an abundance of both, is one of the more exceptionally elaborate forms of masturbation. Which isn’t really an issue one way or the other; I don’t care what people are into. It’s just that it also doesn’t sell.

So when I say no, to what do I refer? I refer to the great idea. The exciting new concept. The value-added feature, the thing no one’s actually asked for but everyone will love. The thing you read the interesting article about. The thing the so-called competition is doubling down on. The thing that one guy, that one time, said would’ve closed the deal that was never going to close anyway. The transformative innovation. The game-changer. The Next Big Thing. And this is why I defend my decision, however dorky, however khaki-trousered, to paste Mr. Collins’ pithy little comment around my much- beleaguered team’s workspace. There are reasons that Mr. Collins is rich and I’m not, and while most of them are probably structural I’m willing to accept that his knack for wedging a message into the booze-fogged brains of corporate leaders is at least one of them. That language above isn’t accidental, and I like it. A “ferocious” understanding of what you’re not going to do is exactly right. Because it’s a fucking battle. People love their children, and they love their ideas. Nor are all the ideas bad. Hell, some of them are cool. I would like to take some of that stuff to market and see what happens. But a core necessity of what I actually do for a living is the willingness to ruthlessly strip things down to that which is fundamentally needed to address a meaningful problem. Do that, get it tested, get it built, see where it falls short (it will; it must) and then improve it where improvement is needed. Everyone will hate this, but it’s how worthwhile things get done. And none of it, ever, is cool.

The sad part is that my little quote solves nothing. I’ve got an uphill fight, not because I work with dumb people (I don’t) or serve dumb customers (furthest thing from it). The intractable problem at the heart of my professional dilemma is that I work with a lot of intelligent people who are excited about what they do, and my job is to funnel their fine ambitions down into the hard and grimy work of solving some very unlovely problems. But like most hard and grimy things, that’s where all the halfway good lessons are. I ask myself (without really knowing the answer) what other dimensions of my life would be far better served by the same discipline, the same emphasis on the importance of “no.” My hunch? Nearly all of them.

Oh, and yeah, about that other thing? No.



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