Help the best idea win

Ken Kocienda asks in his book, Creative Selection, “Two people have imagined two cute puppies. I assert mine is cuter. What do we do now? Do we have a cuteness argument?”

Of course not. The solution is simple: in order to conduct a debate on the topic, the two people need to find pictures of the two cute puppies. Pictures provide concrete, specific, examples.

At Apple, where Ken worked, the teams avoiding imaginary debates, and focused their conversations on the product-equivalent to photographs. They demonstrated the product. Ken writes, “Demos made us react, and the reactions were essential. Direct feedback on one demo provided the impetus to transform it into the next.” Here’s what the process looked like:

demo ➞ feedback ➞ next demo

The main barrier is not the knowledge, but the doing. When you make a demo, you’re doing hard work. You need to accept that your demo—like most demos—might not get chosen to be the final product; in fact, it’s probably going to fail. In spite of this uncertainty, you need to make the bet and commit to making your demo. You need to make decisions on what to include in the demo—to prioritize until it hurts. You need to open your demo up to feedback from your colleagues, decipher the feedback, and put the energy in to make your demo better in the little time you have (often too little to do your best work).

In times like these, the craving for certainty and the human instinct to avoid hard work are incredibly challenging to work through. Getting more information sounds smarter. Brainstorming sounds smarter. A whiteboard discussion sounds smarter. But the real work is focused on making the demo in order to give people a specific, concrete, example of something to react to.

Demos increase the probability that the best idea can gain momentum and ultimately see the light of day. When the best idea wins, that’s a great result for everyone—customers can use better products, the business can sell more products, the leaders can build a good team culture, and the team feels the reward of making something they’re proud of.

There’s no secret here, just the hard work—diligence, focus on craft, decision making, patience, taste, and mental resilience—and team culture that goes into making good demos.

This principle also holds up well outside of product development. For example, it’s why so many books start off as articles or speeches; the articles and speeches were demos for the book.

Every idea starts off very fragile. When you make a demo, you choose an idea and give it strength and energy; you reinforce it. You do that again when you improve the idea based on people’s feedback. You are voting on an idea with your time and energy. 

This process can feel personal, but it’s really not. Sometimes you will be the person who is the one to express the best idea, and sometimes you won’t. Your job is still always the same—to help the best idea win.

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