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The Most Underrated Key to Product Success Is to Just Start Over

Sometimes starting over is the best path to success. Though it costs time and money, with these tips you can get your product development back on track.

Stephen Myers

October 25 th 2019 | 6 minute read

Design professionals are fundamentally builders. We make ideas real. But the part most people never see is the piles of incremental prototypes that serve as trophies to countless hours of experimentation, failure, stress, and eventual triumph over each unique design challenge that defines product development. So while bringing a new product to market is all about building on the lessons from the day before, not every attempt is successful and not every problem is easily fixable on time and under budget.

That painful reality presents a unique problem for results-driven designers and engineers, and it can be truly paralyzing for innovation. Perhaps that’s why the temptation to submit to inertia and avoid major changes is a constant problem in most workplaces. Raise your hand if any of these situations sound familiar:

  • The prototype of your most recent design did poorly in focus groups, but under pressure from above, management prefers just a few quick fixes that don’t address the core user issues.
  • The CAD model you’re working with is a patchwork of quick fixes that crashes with the smallest change, and you’re tasked to add one more revision to the drawing.
  • Your existing legacy product that was cutting edge when it first launched is now a bloated mess of fragile, inefficient updates designed by committee over many years.

We’ve all been there. When faced with these types of thankless design challenges, I often think back to the lesson I learned as a developing young future engineer building crazy inventions at home out of Lego.

When the blocks aren’t working, just start over.

Now as an experienced product developer you may think that sounds impossibly naive as budgets and deadlines often can’t pivot on the whim of a single engineer. I get it. Starting over has a cost in time, money, and trust, and unless you’re willing to pay the price it’s never going to happen. But in my experience it’s actually a lot easier to justify than you might think if you focus on a few simple points.

Successful innovation requires an open mind

One of the greatest obstacles that any experienced product developer will eventually encounter is an always-looming awareness of expectations. Someone hired you and allocated a large budget of time and money for a reason, and that comes with a lot of pressure to produce. Admitting that the path forward perhaps isn’t leading to the desired destination is a very tough pill to swallow.  So even in the face of certain defeat many people choose to plow forward on a failed idea to the project death. Whether it’s a faulty prototype or a negative focus group, the signs are usually right in front of your face for those willing to recognize them. So why don’t they?

Scores of volumes have been written on the sunk cost fallacy in management circles, and even on a personal level the idea that all the long hours you’ve put in were wasted is a difficult mental hurdle to overcome. Sometimes there are very real business constraints that provide little real-world flexibility. But in my experience the root cause is often a lot more personal. It’s really hard to admit you were wrong.

The thing is, starting over isn’t about admitting defeat. To the contrary! It’s a wise choice that celebrates the acquisition of new information and starts anew with the determination to succeed. Don’t be proud – be open to new inputs and relentlessly strive for success. Victory comes to those who are willing to adapt, and sometimes that means wiping the slate clean and doing it right.

When starting over makes sense, just do it

Whether it’s a piece of code or a 3D model, designing a complex product in virtual form is a mentally intensive process that requires a lot of imagination, visualization, and specialized expertise. When it goes well it can be supremely rewarding to watch things take shape in front of your eyes. But when things don’t go so well it can also be extremely frustrating and time consuming. Beyond the internal struggle to make everything work, the external struggle to communicate the problem with team members not experienced with your particular field of expertise can be even more challenging. Combine that communication barrier with very real personality differences between introverted engineers and extroverted management, and simply explaining the problem can take even longer than solving it!

When you really stop to think about the problem, however, it may become clear that the best solution is not to plow forward with incremental improvements but to simply start from scratch. In times like that, I’ve found that it often pays to be proactive. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that in the time you spent discussing a problem you could have just fixed it? Why didn’t you?

Embrace starting over and you’ll be the person at the next meeting presenting solutions while everyone else talks about problems.

Convince the team by quantifying the benefits

While taking the initiative to start over on your own is a proactive way to advance a project, the larger problem may run deeper than your one small corner of the plan. When many people are involved, starting from scratch can be a very tough sell and even suggesting it can feel like a revolutionary act. Let’s say you’re supporting a legacy product that has been modified so many times that the original value proposition is an ancient memory. You may have some fresh ideas to reinvent the product and make it far more desirable to everyone involved, but any proposal that unwinds years of corporate decisions may meet swift rejection. So how are you supposed to overcome such heavy product inertia?

Sell the vision! Not everybody is particularly skilled at imagining something they can’t see or touch, so being a talented design engineer often requires becoming a skilled communicator. Maybe you find that personally intimidating, but effectively influencing people requires a particular set of skills that engineers are pretty darned good at – breaking things down into smaller problems and quantifying their impact.

When selling your vision of starting from scratch, know your audience and break resistance with reason. Explain to the marketing manager how many new customers you can reach. Outline to the CFO how much revenue can be generated. Show the manufacturing manager how much easier it will be to assemble. Create demand from the sales team by demonstrating how it will grow their accounts. And justify the effort to the project manager by outlining the required schedule and resources.

Think like an engineer but act like an entrepreneur, and you’ll quickly become the idea guy everyone turns to for inspiration. Starting over may not always be easy, but challenging problems are a lot more achievable once you have an entire team behind you.

Know when to ask for help with a design challenge

Are you ready to throw off the weights you’ve been shouldering and just start over? You don’t have to do it alone. Talk with your peers for new ideas. Chat informally with the boss for guidance. And when things start to get serious, consider hiring a company like M3 to lend a hand. Our team of experienced designers and engineers has many decades of cumulative experience bringing new ideas to market and we’re well-versed in navigating the various hazards along the way. We find blank whiteboards empowering rather than intimidating, and we’ve got your back no matter how challenging your new idea may be to execute.

Stop wishing things were different and take action. Just start over, and you’ll be on a brand new road to success.

About the Author

Stephen Myers – Engineering

“People pay more attention when they think you’re up to something.”
– Bill Watterson