The Ian Malcolm Question

Ian Malcolm, World’s Sexiest Mathematician

Startups are all about new ideas. Their very existence is a challenge to some form of conventional wisdom. To succeed in the face of such long odds, most startups create a culture that rewards big ideas and bold thinking. Words like innovation, disruption, moonshot, and rocketship are thrown around to inspire a magnitude of change. It’s appealing—and a big reason why I got into this industry.

Perception is reality, so companies are always looking to prove that they can achieve the impossible. Make dreams into reality. Bring the future into the present. Moreover, the investors backing these companies encourage aggressive growth because they need 10x and 100x companies to return the fund. So companies use off-sites, design sprints, hackathons, and other methods to ask, “What if we could…?

Someone needs to ask whether we should. This is the Ian Malcolm Question.¹

There Are Lots of Mosquitos Trapped in Amber

Opportunities are everywhere at a company. The CEO returns from a meeting that she thinks could lead to a very promising business development partnership. The tech lead spends all weekend creating a proof-of-concept that makes the entire roadmap obsolete. A competitor surprises with a splashy new launch and you get pressured to deliver a fast follow. A launch video paints a rosy picture to garner Kickstarter funding. A feature sits in the backlog that could unlock a step change for the north star metric.

Here’s the thing: that partnership might be exactly what the company needs. That proof of concept might be worth starving other projects to staff. The company won’t survive without that Kickstarter funding. And moving that north star metric should be the top priority.

But—just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should. And deciding whether something should be done is more complex than some are willing to admit.

The Ian Malcolm Question is Several Questions

Understanding whether something should be done requires a series of narrower questions that get at the bigger issue.

What happens if it doesn’t go well?

Just as John Hammond couldn’t have guessed that his security engineer would go rogue the same day as a powerful tropical storm, bringing Jurassic Park to its knees, Microsoft might not have ever guessed that their Tay AI would would learn to become racist within 24 hours of its launch. Even in a war room scenario were all the decision makers are huddled together, how quickly could a team (1) identify that there was a problem that required action and (2) make a decision and execute against it? That timeline shrinks if worst case scenarios are discussed upfront. In Microsoft’s case, that discussion might lead to weird questions like, “How racist are we willing to let the bot become before we pull the plug?”

The possibility of a worst case scenario doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move forward with an idea at all, but teams have to at least ask the question and consider the odds as well as their response options.

What happens if it goes better than expected?

Could Netflix have predicted it would consume 15% of the world’s internet traffic because its users watch over 1 billion hours of content each week? Maybe, given the popularity of binge watching and Reed Hastings’s infamous quote that their real competition is sleep.

Twenty years ago when they were mailing out DVD copies of The Big Lebowski and Office Space, Reed and the team were likely not discussing net neutrality or the implications of 150 million people choosing to watch that next episode of Friends instead of reading a book, getting some exercise, or just going to sleep.

However, given their scale and function in society today, Netflix has to have these discussions. Second-level effects can be very difficult to predict, but that’s no excuse not to try. And thinking about how best-case scenarios play out is basically a recruiting tactic for many startups.

What if a user veers off the “happy path?”

Out of necessity, a new company focuses first on the journey of its target users having an ideal experience. This is the happy path, and that narrow focus allows a company to get its earliest wins. Over time, the criteria for target customers become more varied, as do the range of experiences. Companies can’t afford to be myopic forever. Responsible companies think not just about various “happy paths” but how to let users fail gracefully. What happens when someone uses the product in an unexpected way? What if expected outcomes don’t occur?² What if you don’t account for all the people who might use your product?

Oops, you’re racist.

Ian Malcolm, Product Manager

Whose job is it to ask the Ian Malcolm Question? The CEO has a fiduciary responsibility to the board and other shareholders. I believe the responsibility for the Ian Malcolm Question falls to the product manager. Product managers are often present for discussions of new ideas in their infancy, and the Ian Malcolm Question should be asked before it’s too late.³ Plus, product managers are uniquely tasked with setting priorities and considering outcomes.

Part of the job description is to be a check against executive id. There will always be someone else to consider the financial implications. Product managers should behave like B Corps, whether their companies are legally organized this way or not. It can’t just be about the metrics. Your decisions have outcomes, and you have to be comfortable with them.

¹Ian Malcolm is the chewy moral center of Jurassic Park, a movie about a girl who has trouble eating Jell-O.

²This story was brutal to read, and what initially inspired me to write this.

³When did Noah build the ark? Before the rain, Gladys.