“My CEO got an iPad for Christmas”

Damning products to failure

Early predictions of failure – let’s call it ‘ambient negative sentiment’ – can create obvious problems for a new product programme. However, risk is equally devastating at the other end of the spectrum: where programmes become overburdened early on by the weight of positive expectations.

In early 2011, we had numerous meetings at big companies that started with the onerous phrase:

My CEO got an iPad for Christmas

What they then went on to say is that now their CEO’s expectations for all sorts of products and initiatives had been reset – by a casual conversation about how great it would be if our products were more like this.


Cursing innovation

Expectations have been a curse of innovation programmes for many years.

First, a senior executive will look at work in progress and make an offhand comment: “It would be great if it could do x” or “I imagine it’s a bit like y”. They say this without ever having tested their suggestion, provided any evidence of its likely success, and without the innovation manager even agreeing to it.

What we then suddenly have is an expectation that will now proliferate across the entire business, whenever said stakeholder discusses what the innovation team is up to.

Now, the innovating team has to build in the desired feature or behaviour into the product roadmap; or enter a period of tedious politicking and negotiation to have the feature removed from the expectations of the executive.

Without warning, the product goes from being a customer-centred solution to having a roadmap set by the wider business. 


Ideas don’t need roadmaps

At least, not until they’re on the road.

Once ideas are validated, proven and heading towards being a real product, that’s when we consider the scope of the first release product, and how to structure the features that come after in to a clear roadmap.

However, many innovation leaders feel the need to anchor their programmes in the artefacts and planning that’s used elsewhere in the operational business:

  • Often, teams can set themselves up for this problem by sharing internal documents – without giving sufficient context.
  • Vision visuals or early prototypes, for example, may feel like a great way to inspire the rest of the business and secure budget. However, the risk is that stakeholders can become excessively attached to a particular execution, feature or style: and then suddenly you have another target to meet, regardless of what you learn about the actual desirability of such a feature with real customers.


Building enthusiasm

So: be careful what you trade to build enthusiasm, or you could find your ambition to build a product that customers want has been abandoned in favour of building a product that matches executivesexpectations.

The phrase “I would have expected…” is toxic to all innovation initiatives, especially speculative new business development.

It is an outright symbol, if any is needed, that stakeholders have not been managed effectively and more, and underlines a lack of understanding of how shaping and validation differ from execution.


If you’ve missed any of our previous instalments, check the list below.

  1. When a revolution is required
  2. The myth and magic of innovation
  3. Where do ideas come from?
  4. Money and politics – why innovation could be doomed to fail
  5. Sociopaths, clueless, losers
  6. Our five principles for revolutionary innovation
  7. What makes products successful?
  8. The tale of David and Goliath