During spring time, we got together with a friend to work on a product idea. The idea was about helping organizations in complex decision making. In this post, I’ll go through my experiences on working on the idea, and how we invalidated and finally rejected it.
Why Decision Making?
During the past years of my working life, this has been the norm: An issue pops up, a group of people get together to work on it, and the issue should have been solved yesterday. Solving the issue typically means making a series of decisions and executing them.
Since shared responsibility often equals to no results, a person is assigned to drive the work to a conclusion.
Now imagine you being that person. You start by contacting the colleagues you know are able to help you with the job. You initiate some studies, and arrange a set of workshops to collect various opinions and facts. Solution alternatives are weighted until some sort of consensus is reached. Finally, the decision gets made!
When pressing your head against the pillow in the evening, you get a nagging feeling about the decision. Questions pop into your head:
- Were the right persons reached for this decision?
- Were all the persons followed up for their input?
- Were the various viewpoints understood in the right way?
- Did we manage to communicate the viewpoints to others?
- Were the various opinions comparable?
- Were the opinions correctly emphasized?
- Were people victims of groupthink?
- Are the results understandable also after six months?
- Do people feel that their opinion was heard and valued?
In case you have been working with complex problems in a large organization, I bet this sounds familiar.
The Plan for the Product
Since me and my friend had both been working in R&D and IT organizations, we decided to take that group as our initial target customer. I also liked the idea of eventually scratching my own itch.
We also decided that small companies were not within our target group, since they probably won’t suffer from the mentioned decision making problems.
Using our product, teams would be able to:
- Invite persons to collaborate on the problem, and keep track of their participation.
- Brainstorm on different solution alternatives and evaluation criteria.
- Gather the facts and opinions and state the emphasis (e.g. quality over cost).
- Visualize the data, and see how the decision got made and who affected it.
- Archive the results for later re-evaluation.
Product was planned to be based on proven decision making techniques like AHP, with a twist of being tolerant on incomplete information. Want to know more about AHP? See short example of it from here (it only takes a few minutes):
Since the plan was to create a product business instead of a consultancy, this was going to be a SaaS-product, running both in the cloud and in the organization’s intranet.
Why would our customers fancy this product? Easy; they would get a comprehensive view to the problem, make better decisions and investments, and improve their culture with increased transparency!
You probably have heard a few times the claim that if you cannot find your competition, you either cannot use Google, or your idea is not worth of implementing. Luckily in our case the competition was easy to find, see the comparison of decision-making software.
Having competition was a good sign, it would be painful to teach to customers why they need a new kind of product.
So what was our game plan to beat the competition? In short, simplicity. Make it look non-technical, accept incomplete input and modernize the tooling.
You’ve done your fair share of sitting in endless meeting, debating about the same issues again and again, so wouldn’t you love to try out something like this? I know I would!
So would we have any customers for this? It was time to find out. Going through our virtual Rolodex, we collected a set of persons with the right type of backgrounds.
We were still somewhat hesitant about the correctness of our target group, so we dropped in also a few wild cards from other areas of work life.
No one was safe; ex-colleagues, friends, and friends of our friends started to get calls and emails from us. When the dust settled, we had almost 30 interviews done with various depths. And what did we find? Here’s what:
- Yet another tool! People are fed up with badly integrated, sub-standard tools increasing their workload. Our product should be tightly integrated into some well known ecosystem, or it would be really hard to sell.
- Where’s the authority? Some persons felt that we should have well known names either from research or from the industry backing us up. How do we dare to claim to be experts in decision making?
- People hate hard work, and systematic decision making is hard. Heck, even just getting people to participate in the process is often next to impossible.
- There is plenty of organizations where transparent decision making is not a true value. If decision makers like to hide their true motives and don’t see the value in transparency, we were out of luck.
Not all feedback was negative though. People in expert roles clearly have a hard time making decisions, and they would be willing to experiment with this type of product.
Several persons suggested us to put effort on problem solving templates. These templates would help teams to get started on problem solving, e.g. “what to take into account when selecting a database for our system”.
Even the persons who like to rely on intuition have difficulties while convincing others. So instead of forming their decision based on careful analysis, they would like to get assistance when explaining their opinions to others.
In the end, we felt that there wasn’t enough customers in our target segment to justify the effort of creating the product.
Furthermore, our own interest started to fade away with lame feedback, and if you don’t have the fire as a founder, you’ll probably cannot convince others to pay for the product.
Luckily we gained new insights on decision making and the products already available in the marketplace. Next time when I encounter a tough and costly decision, I’ll probably reach out to one of those tools.
If you have ever wondered how you could make better decisions, then make sure that you watch this: