When to Ask Forgiveness and Secretly Build a Product Anyway

It feels counterintuitive to keep something secret at work. And yet we all see situations where organizations kill really good ideas. Organizations with and without models for disruptive innovation in place. If an idea is perceived to detract focus from the current top-down directives, it’s likely to face insurmountable opposition.

You can’t get the green light to build an idea without some sort of proof. And often you can’t get any proof without actually building it.

So what do you do?

Give up?

Not if your idea is a baby tiger, you don’t.

Yawning tiger cub
New ideas are like “baby tigers” that need your protection [photo bytambako]

Baby Tiger Ideas

Tigers may be an apex predator, but baby tigers need protecting until they’re more developed and able to fend for themselves in the wild. The baby tigers are those ideas that could be unstoppable, if only someone would see their potential and protect them.

A while back at eBay someone spotted a baby tiger and a group of us took it upon ourselves to work together and protect it until it grew into a $2B business.

It was 2008.

“Mobile” hadn’t quite taken off yet. eBay’s mobile site was underperforming in comparison to desktop. Management decided to fire the whole team. Forget about this mobile thing, our focus should be on the core business. Soon after this, Apple made an announcement to a select number of developers inviting them to participate in a new service they were preparing to launch at WWDC: the App Store. Some of these developers were at eBay.

Well luckily for eBay, these developers saw the opportunity in this and formed a band of renegades to get it built. One of these people was a designer on my team who came to me about the project. We got all of her other work covered by other team members and she was able to focus solely on the app so we could have it built in time for the launch. By the time the launch came around and the app was built, the project was shown to management and they were quickly on board with the whole idea.

Steve Jobs introducing eBay as an App Store launch partner (WWDC July 2008)

The eBay iPhone app was a major success, and a significant factor of the success came from the opportunity of being featured as part of the App Store launch – which lead to even further exposure and positive relations with Apple that helped as this whole “mobile” thing really took off. In 2010 while only 12% of top 500 Internet retailers had mobile-optimized Web sites, 7% had mobile apps, and only 2% had checkout features. eBay accounted for 50% of mobile eCommerce in the U.S. that year and 70% of that came from the iPhone.

These unexpected opportunities come up, and you really have to know how to spot them and take advantage of them.

Here’s a few things to think about when doing this.

Timing

Release an idea into the “wild” of an organization before it can defend itself, and it may very well be killed before it ever stood a chance.

Think about what dangers your idea may face when it’s proposed. What aspects will be scrutinized? What if it’s brought up to the C-level? How will it do then?

Framing

Often there can be a mismatch between the actual scope of something, and how much required effort various stakeholders perceive. If an organization’s general wisdom is that a feature is impossible or a lot harder than it really is, it will likely get killed.

Build your PoC or proposal in a strategic way so that it can specifically invalidate these kinds of assumptions.

Putting in the Hours

It may be necessary to put in some extra time to lay out the groundwork for your idea in any off hours you can find. Take advantage of opportunities like company Hack Days, where employees are encouraged to work on personal projects and share what they’ve done. Occasionally I’ve seen folks use these moments to share ideas they’ve worked on outside the office as well – whatever works.

Patience

But remember, it may not be wise to show all of your cards until your hand is ready to be played on the table of internal appeals. Mind the lasting importance of first impressions. It may be to your advantage to keep aspects of an idea behind the curtain until you’re ready to withstand its potential critiques.

Tact

If the opposition you’re aiming to circumnavigate is within your personal management chain, there’s a high risk of resentment and retaliation (however the idea pans out). Be mindful of what you broadcast and who may be involved and affected by these efforts.

Cooperation

Seek out assistance and support in these situations.

People often gripe about middle management. But middle management can actually be a valuable asset in coordinating these, sort-of, guerilla collaboration-efforts when it appears necessary.

If you’re in middle management, don’t underestimate the liberty you have in your role to facilitate these projects. And if your approaching someone in middle management about an idea, find a way to contextualize it in terms they’re likely to sympathize with.


We all have to take some risks in life.

Don’t let your ideas get thrown to wayside without a fair fight.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration withMark Mizera.

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