Hard Choices

It’s been just a couple of months since we released the iomando API to the world and the adoption has been great so far. Beyond the four customers we launched with, we are already in advanced talks with more than a dozen potential partners.

So far so good, but today I wanted to share some thoughts about the unexpected consequences that derived from the release of the iomando API. Precisely, I wanted to focus on the tensions that arise when you try to simultaneously develop two products that are not perfectly aligned in their end goals.

The Problem

We knew the problem from the beginning. We understood from the very first moment we planned to release an API that the interests of our vertical strategy might friction at some point with our horizontal vision to get third parties on board.

This is not a new thing, though. We’ve seen these dynamics playing out countless times. Even large and well stablished companies like Microsoft struggle when it comes to make hard choices that might affect the overall strategy.

So yes, we knew this was going to happen. Despite we choose to turn a blind eye to the question and see if fate had a different path prepared for us. One might complain: “what a curious and (un)professional way to manage products you guys have at iomando, haven’t you?”. And you’ll be absolutely right. Looking back this ranks among the poorest product decisions we’ve made so far, because we agreed not to decide anything at all. But more on that later, let’s focus on the problem first.

The problem is simple: saying "no" is hard.

We had a thriving business that was growing faster than we could ever imagine. Then we devised another opportunity with even more potential, but still unproved success, and above all, misaligned with the first one.

And this misalignment is the key ingredient of trouble. It’s fine if you just came up with an idea for a new product. I mean, great for your top line revenue, perhaps eventually it might create some synergies with existing products and maybe it reinforces your overall value proposition. Look at Apple for example, they use to sell Macs, and suddenly they started selling iPods. Is that misaligned with delivering the best products that Apple cares for? Not at all. Then we are good. And of course they have sold a ton of both.

So everything is great so far, until this new product is not strategically aligned with the greater company vision. Then critical tensions arise.

The consequences of not choosing

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from all of these it would be: not deciding is not only about postponing a painful decision, it is also setting yourself for a path of inevitable suffering that is only going to get worse, never better.

This is the hardest place to be. Because in order to not decide at the beginning, you saved yourself a decision, but you just ignited a chain reaction that will follow you everywhere you go.

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Why we don’t choose in the first place has an easy answer. When you are faced with a hard choice, the most human thing to do is keep both. But that’s not choosing at all. Choosing is hard. Because when you choose, you make decisions, then you can be wrong, and we are afraid of being wrong all the time. The same way we feel worse if we lose 10€ in the stock market than better if we earn 10€. It’s an asymmetric reward, so the default state is hold still.

At that point is when the unexpected part kicks in. As we mentioned earlier, once you’ve decided not to choose, you might avoid high dose of “one shot” pain, but you just (unwittingly) subscribed to a long term cascade of uncomfortable decisions. 

You have changed one-time, acute pain, for recurring, chronicle suffering.

So how does this work? Once passed the choosing phase, more decisions will need to be made. If you’d chosen to say “no” to one of the options, your decision making now would be clear, focused and straightforward. You could be right or wrong about the path you chose, but at least the decisions you’ll face down the road would have a aligned incentives, and when your incentives are clear, decision making is rather easy.

  You have changed one-time, acute pain, for recurring, chronicle suffering.

You have changed one-time, acute pain, for recurring, chronicle suffering.

But, if you didn’t choose in the first place, decisions that need addressing will eventually come anyway. And here is when the recurring suffering comes into play: whatever you decide, there won’t ever be a right answers again. Because your product goals are no longer aligned, your incentives are no longer clear, so decisions will have to favor some of the parts and will always be suboptimal.

At the beginning maintaining a balance between both parties might seem like an option, but as the products evolve it’s only going to get worse until the point that balance is not an option anymore. Eventually you are going to piss someone off. Hard trade offs will be required.

If you don’t make mistakes, decisions are not being made

At this point, the underlying problem it will be that suboptimal decisions will lead to an undesired state of paralysis. Good decisions won’t come under this environment of misalignment of strategic priorities. So not making a hard choices in the first place is just the first step to a chain reaction of bad outcomes.

The consequence of not choosing is just a matter of postponing decisions rather than going forward. Steve Jobs knew that well, and in the formidable keynote 1997 framed this question brilliantly.

“Some mistakes will be made along the way. That’s good. Because at least some decisions are being made along the way. We’ll find the mistakes, we’ll fix them! I think what we need to do is support that team.”

And here it comes the most valuable lesson to get from this article, it’s not about obsessing over not making mistakes. Mistakes are going to be made, try to avoid them, sure, but recognize that you’ll inevitably make some. If you don’t make mistakes it’s because you are not trying something new. If you are really pushing the envelope you will bump into problems, hard choices. But if your vision is clear, if your product incentives are aligned with the overall company vision, then (as Ben Thompson always says) making decisions will be rather easy.