Revisit past ideas

If you want to be a bad product manager, ignore ideas that have been tried before. If it failed in the past, it will fail in the present. Don’t waste your time even thinking about it or discussing it again. Focus instead on coming up with totally new ideas to try, and if none of those work, keep coming up with new ideas.

If you want to be a good product manager, revisit ideas from the past to see if they are applicable now. “It’s been tried before, and it didn’t work” should be banished from the vocabulary of anyone in product development or management. Not only does this phrase implicitly limit innovation and creativity, but whether it worked or not is less important than why.

Instead of rehashing the past, understand why something that was tried in the past was or was not successful, and see if anything has changed that would produce different results this time around. Have the needs of your customers changed? Are there new market dynamics at play? Are there new customer segments that have developed? Is new or improved technology available that could make the idea more successful? Are you pursuing a new or different strategy?

Lots of companies have been trying online video for more than a decade. Rather than concluding that there was no potential in it since since so many companies had tested the waters and failed, YouTube realized that changes in how people were using the Internet, more affordable and powerful webcams and digital video cameras, and vastly improved technology for delivering online video all made it the right time to launch an online video service.

Netscape and others have provided customizable personal home pages since the mid-1990s with limited success. However, Google’s new focus on the personalized iGoogle home page is driven by the increased desire for personalization coupled with technology allowing for virtually anyone to create a mini-application that can be added to their or others’ pages. Pointcast failed with “push” technology that would deliver news and information directly to users’ computers, but RSS is flourishing.

Just because an idea did not work in the past does not mean it will not work in the future. Of course, it is also irresponsible to ignore history. Ideas that have been tried in the past should be evaluated the same way as new ideas that are cultivated, with the additional benefit of being able to learn from the past. Good product managers will revisit ideas regularly to see if there are any changes which would make them more or less successful in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Revisit past ideas

  1. While there is some truth to this I have to say that I have also seen it wreak havoc on companies.

    For example, when I was at Apple the management team was constantly in flux. Every 2 years or so we would have a completely different set of execs. What happened was that there was no institutional learning, so the new exec team would come in and repeat the same mistakes that past teams had made (despite having been warned by longer-term employees like myself). They were convinced that they were smarter or more capable than the previous team and thus their plan would not fail.

    If you want to be a GREAT Product Manager and build a GREAT company, do short post-mortems on your failures and keep them archived. That way if you do decide to revisit an idea you can at least know why it failed and what you might want to do differently the next time.

    Brian Lawley

  2. Exactly — Shrugging off ideas just because they’ve been tried before and failed is as ill conceived as ignoring the fact that ideas have failed in the past. Both are failures, and which you see more often probably depends on what type of organization it is. Conservative organizations are loathe to try anything new or that’s been tried before and didn’t prove successful; those in more aggressive environments tend to forget even the recent past or trick themselves into believing it’s not relevant.

    Learning about why things worked or didn’t work in the past is the key, whether it’s from decisions that you have made, or, in the case you mentioned, that predecessors have made.

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