mini-cases: better to beg for forgiveness, part 2

In this mini-case, I did not have official approval for my idea.

And it was simple: I was working for a business that, among other things, allowed users of a website to search for airfares across multiple providers—pretty innovative, at the time.

Now, I had always heard that it was best to purchase an airline ticket around 2 weeks before the flight. Any sooner, and the airlines would profit from those who had immutable travel plans far in advance; any later, and prices would steadily go up as you approached your chosen departure date. Yes, you could always get last-minute tickets, but you had little control over the specific timing or even destination.

Fundamentally, I wanted to answer the question, “If I need to be at a wedding in Dallas on a certain date, when should I buy my ticket?”

We had access to flight and price data. We certainly could record, to a certain extent, the prices of the tickets viewed by our customers. We could make this happen. I was pretty sure it would be useful.

So I proposed it as a new project. It was promptly denied by my manager.

The response I got was that we didn’t have enough data to make a truly accurate estimate of what future flight prices would be—that there was no sense in trying to tell somebody when to buy a ticket if we couldn’t be exceedingly confident that we were giving them good information.

Of course, I disagreed. Any data was better than no data…couldn’t such a system, even as simple as a red-yellow-green coloration for a given price, offer some good value to our users?

But, to no avail.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that I should just go forward with my idea; that it was better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I was worried that my innovation would be seen as insubordination, and I just didn’t think I could keep my mouth shut on something that really interested me; I couldn’t go the clandestine route. And I didn’t have an appropriately thick skin to resist criticism of an idea that was so far below the radar that management had formally forbidden it.

So I moved on to other things.

A few years later—after I had left this company—somebody at a different company did exactly what I had described.

Did the company that implemented my idea make a ton of money? I don’t know. Was it super-accurate? Don’t know that either. But, I mean, it was a good idea. If you could have input a travel destination into a website and had it email you when it estimated you should purchase the ticket for the cheapest price, you’d sign up? Right?

All I know is that I—and probably many, many other people—came up the idea first. And of those many people, I was one of the ones who had access to the data to make it a reality.

But, I didn’t. I didn’t, because my manager told me not to.

Do I feel ripped-off? Nah. Anybody involved in entrepreneurship will tell you that ideas are a dime a dozen; the secret sauce is in the execution. Am I sad that I didn’t give it a shot? Yeah. But do I feel like I missed the opportunity of a lifetime? Again: nah. It would at some point have required the support of the organization to make it successful, I’m not sure I could have made that happen.

That said, the first lesson of this case is pretty simple: if you have a good idea, and you think you can make some real progress towards making it a reality—while still getting your regular work done—there’s no reason not to do it.

So your manager doesn’t encourage you. Did he outright say that he’d fire you if he caught you working on it? And, so what? Did you ever do anything in your life just for spite? Just because somebody told you you’d fail?

Remember that your manager is just a human being, and that humans fail a lot. Augment that opinion with the very real phenomenon that far more individuals are in management that have true aptitude for the position—see “the Peter Principle”—and be sure to take all opinions with a great big grain of salt. And even if it’s not a competence issue, there are always far more ideas in any organization than can possibly be pursued.

The second lesson is to realize when you are in a situation where you can have a real impact; don’t always get hung up on processes and procedures if you can figure out a way to get around them.

Yes, there is a real risk here: you might get discovered, disciplined and fired. Even if your product is wildly successful, the organization might discipline you for breaking the rules, in an effort to head off future insubordination.

But recognize your environment and try to get a good feeling for just how much trouble you’ll get into before you automatically dismiss an idea. Are you stepping on toes, or is everybody too busy dancing to notice that you’re working outside your official capacity?

Learn to recognize possibilities for making a difference, even if they aren’t in the context of a great big game-changing skunkworks project. If your marketing department is shorthanded and you have a knack for writing bullet points, volunteer. Are you a great writer but you’re in a technical position? Write the manual or the documentation, or make friends with the editorial staff.

Lesson three is that premium features are a great way to monetize investments. If somebody is criticizing that “it’ll never stand on its own” or “why should we do more for our customer?”, the next step is to point out that value-add services make money. If you don’t believe this, pull out your credit cards. Do they all have around the same interest rate? Or might one card justify a higher rate—or even an annual fee—by giving you access to more desirable rewards if you use that card?

And Lesson Four is another of those quotes that ought to be tattooed on your body, or carved into your tombstone: “Any data is better than no data.”

Listen: you’re planning to make a pizza. You turn the oven to 425, and it seems to be kind of cold. You turn it to 200, and it seems to be extremely hot.

You turn it to 300, and it’s sort of in the middle. At 150, it’s as hot as you’ve felt it. At 450, it’s barely on.

And that’s data. At this point, you realize that the temperature knob is backwards, and so you’re able to find an appropriate temperature.

Could you have arrived at that conclusion without several data points? Without experimentation?

That’s the value of data.

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2 Responses to mini-cases: better to beg for forgiveness, part 2

  1. Matt D says:

    Data without context is useless. Therefore, “any data” is not better at producing something of value than “no data at all.” Without context they are equally likely to result in failure. You are better off doing nothing at all then basing decisions on information that may have no relevance to what you are trying to accomplish. So, data that has been validated to be accurate and relevant to achieving your goal is better than data of an unknown context.

    • mark says:

      I see what you’re saying, but I don’t completely agree. Data, even in a vacuum, even completely without context, tells you something. Maybe it gives you an idea what units are being used. Maybe it just tells you that somebody measured something.

      It’s one of those things that moves along a continuum. On one end of the “data usefulness continuum,” you have ” “. Then you have “2″. Then you have “2, 4, 6, 8″. Then you have “length=2,” and then maybe “length of the cabinet door=2,” and then “length of the cabinet door is 2 feet,” and then a blueprint of the door, and then a spreadsheet containing the dimensions of every cabinet door ever produced. I would agree that you don’t have actionable data until probably at least “length=2″ or maybe even “length of the cabinet door=2.” But even at “2″ you know that what you’re dealing with is measured in numbers. It’s not “blue” or “tart” or “ZX-1010-foo.”

      Also, the decision not to act is still a decision. If I were trying to decide whether or not to do a project and somebody gave me context-free data, I might defer on the basis that somebody giving me useless data isn’t going to be good to work with. The idea is “knowing something is always better than knowing nothing,” not “buy a house based on somebody shouting ’2!’”

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