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When to Ask Forgiveness and Secretly Build a Product, Anyway

Notes on protecting your baby tiger

Preston Smalley
Sep 19, 2018 · 4 min read
New ideas are like “baby tigers” that need your protection. Photo: tambako via flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

It feels counterintuitive to keep ideas secret at work — and yet, we’ve all seen situations where organizations kill really good ideas. Organizations with and without models for disruptive innovation in place, doesn’t matter. If an idea is perceived to distract 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 paradoxically, you often can’t get proof without building something.

So what do you do?

Give up?

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

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 $2 billion 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, 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.

And luckily for eBay, these developers saw an opportunity 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 work covered by other team members and she was able to focus solely on the app so we could have it built in time. 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.

The eBay app was a major success, and a significant contributing factor to that success was the opportunity to be featured during the App Store launch. Our participation led to even further exposure, and to positive relations with Apple, which helped as this whole “mobile” thing really took off. In 2010, while only 12 percent of the internet’s top 500 retailers had mobile-optimized websites, seven percent had mobile apps, and only two percent had checkout features. eBay accounted for 50 percent of mobile eCommerce in the U.S. that year, and 70 percent 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 are a few things to think about when protecting your baby tiger.

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 or 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.

If you’re in middle management, don’t underestimate the power you have to facilitate these projects. And if you’re 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 the wayside without a fair fight.

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