Moving Fast and Changing Nothing

July 17, 2021

In my line of work, I hear a lot about “MVP”, or “minimum viable product”. I complain about MVP all the time, because while the term is historically used to describe making products that are sufficiently safe for public usage (which is good), in my line of work it’s a concept that actually exists to reduce business risk, not make better products. In theory, you want to “avoid building products that people don’t want”, but (1) there are lots of ways to do that, and (2) there are upsides to taking large, creative risks, many of which have lead to some of the best products. That’s why the real problem with minimum product thinking isn’t that it leads to very basic initial releases of products (although that is A problem). It’s that it outsources product development decisions to crowds, so it’s inherently hostile to the major innovation and coherence that comes with a single person, or small team, driving towards a vision.

Minimum viable product — and subsequent iteration — spares you from the MacBook Pro TouchBar, but also kneecaps the iPhone. Yes, Apple iterated over years and years to improve their phones and watches, but you have to admit that they launched with VERY aggressive “1.0” versions with clear visions. When they were wrong, they eat the loss (which can take years), but that usually means rather than reduce risk, they work on getting better at executing risky things, because making transcendently good, successful things requires risk.

I find it especially bizarre how conservative a lot of software development is at venture backed companies. These are literally organizations with millions of dollars artificially pumped into them to give them the ability to operate in a bigger, more aggressive way than their present status would ordinarily allow. But these are, in my experience, often R&D environments that are incredibly risk averse when it comes to product innovation, and require confirmation of user interest on even the smallest changes before they’re comfortable investing any additional time or effort. “Move fast and break things” has proven to be a potentially disastrous way to run a growth company, but part of the problem was that Facebook ITERATED so quickly — not that the steps they took were so large and unconfirmed by user engagement. Facebook is what it is today precisely because it was always MVP based, and hyper-responsive to A/B testing and crowd/mob-sourcing. They’re also institutionally incapable of addressing their existential challenges for the same reason — no sufficiently bold solution could ever be broken up into small enough steps that would, iteration by iteration, be confirmed as good for Facebook. They may be able to take 2 steps forward and one step back, but they can’t take 10 back and 20 forward. The 10 is just too far to go without affirmation.

However, the counter-argument to this is maybe the most interesting part of all, and I know because I’ve had this argument with CEOs and product managers for years. And it’s that the degree of risk I’m asking companies to take on is simply unacceptable to some form of leadership. Product leaders don’t want to risk being responsible for wasting R&D resources or being “wrong”. Executives don’t want to risk the business failing. Investors don’t want to risk losing their money.

All of that is irrelevant. No one (including me) advocates for taking on more risk by saying “the downsides of increased risk are good things and I hope they happen to us!” Of COURSE those risks exist, and of COURSE those people would pay part of the price of that failure. Hell, I work at these companies — if they go out of business, I will be out of a job! I don’t want to fail, either!

But… there are many kinds of failure. The obvious kind is making a big, vision-driven gamble and failing to make it stick, either due to poor execution or just being flat-out wrong. The less obvious kind is failure by irrelevance — building a bland, uninspiring product driven by the requests of people who are naturally drawn to re-creating the world they already know, versus what could be. It’s a pretty comfortable way to fail, though. It often takes a while, and it’s slow, like a frog boiling in a pot, so you can blame an infinite array of discrete events (“remember our crazy VP of Sales?”) or shifts in the market for the fact that you were never going to be able to hit a home run because you sat there with the bat on your shoulder hoping for a walk.

If you follow my bold vision, and it falls on its face, I’m willing to be held accountable for that. That’s why I work at startups, and in technology. If I’m not willing — and this happens, I can do cost-benefit analysis, too — I’ll let you know beforehand. But in general, there’s a home run available in every strategy. I don’t mind that people don’t necessarily want to pursue it, but I’m getting a little tired of people talking like they do, but operating like they don’t.