Crossing the Valley of Despair

Some might consider incrementalism to be the ideal product development process. Given a product, all you need to do is focus on making the product incrementally better: add a feature, improve a feature, or reduce costs. Eventually, you'll get the product where it needs to go.

Frequently, it is the best strategy, but it doesn't work all the time.

Building products can be compared to climbing mountains.  Imagine you're climbing a small mountain. Most of the time as you want to climb higher, the best thing to do is climb further up the small mountain.

But as you approach the top, the problem becomes clear. Soon, you won't be able to climb any higher. However, across the valley, you can see a much bigger mountain. At this point, it may seem that the obvious solution to go higher is to go climb the larger mountain.

But between you and the larger mountain is the valley. The valley is barren, and no one is ever rewarded for being in the valley. And this is the real problem.

Incrementalism provides a foundation to explain success: I made the product 3% more profitable, I grew the user base 5%, I delivered 3 new features. These are things that are easy to measure, these are things that are easy to understand, and these are the things that organizations reward.

When you descend into the valley, your progress can be hard to measure. You can end up isolated from the team, many of whom will believe it's better to circle the top of a small mountain than to risk descending.

If you are going to descend and cross the valley to scale the higher peak, you have to ensure that you have key support for your mission before you set out. This is especially true in a larger organization that necessitates collaboration with multiple teams.

Gaining real support for setting a new course can take time. People will often provide kudos for a bold idea when they have nothing at stake.  You need to ensure that you're getting real support to spend the time and resources that it will take to establish the new product, and you need to re-calibrate your success metrics to accommodate your new direction. This planning will take some time but will be necessary. If you don't have any backing for your journey, you won't make it.

Most people and organizations prioritize avoiding risk even as they talk about great opportunities. But if you prepare properly, you really can climb ever higher mountains.