Learning when to say “no” to an idea

If your reason for launching a product is because “everyone else is doing it”, don’t do it

Saying “no” to an idea is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn to do. A colleague, for instance, recently asked me (rather enthusiastically) whether we should start a new Twitter handle. I had to explain politely why it was a bad idea.

One of my jobs is to encourage experimentation in the newsroom and to create a culture where people aren’t afraid to try new things.

But as I’ve learned over the past year, we can’t say “yes” to everything. Throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks has its limits. Eventually, we need to prioritise the ideas that align with our broader goals; otherwise, we can expect mayhem.

Learning to say “no” helps our team stay on track. It’s tempting to want to do everything and be everywhere. But we concluded that it’s better to be brilliant at a few things than mediocre at many. As Steve Jobs once put it, “deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”

So how do we know when to say “yes” and when to (nicely) say “no” to an idea, platform or new format?

First, we try to figure out whether the idea strengthens our team’s goals

Our goal is to build awareness among the globally curious. We aim to solve two problems: lack of awareness and misconceptions about who we are.

A concrete goal helps to set the parameters within which to operate. What are we trying to do? Build awareness. For whom? The globally curious. It’s much easier to say “yes” to ideas that aim to reach the intelligent reader, help them understand the world and increase the quality of debate than those that do not; likewise it’s easier to say “no” to ideas that add zero value to an online discussion. We don’t always get it right, by the way!

A few months ago, for example, we decided to leave Tumblr and Pinterest after giving it one last push. But our rationale for continuing to experiment with these networks was already flawed: because everyone else was doing it. We should have shut it down after our initial six-month trial, where we didn’t see stellar results.

We struggled to engage with and reach our globally curious readers there, who were perhaps more interested in sharing different types of content (that we don’t currently offer) and doing specific types of jobs (such as planning for an event or building a new house). In short, we weren’t solving any problems for our Pinterest and Tumblr users.

Accepting defeat is hard, but at some point, you need to say “no”. Our failure with Tumblr and Pinterest has forced us to be much more thorough when deciding whether to pursue an emerging platform in the future.

Second, don’t do it because “everyone else is doing it”

Every so often, I hear these answers to the question, “Why should we do this?”

“Everyone else is doing it”
“Our rival is doing it”
“Because we should”
“Because people will want it”
“Because we have to”
“Because I think it’s a good idea”

Here’s the killer question I then follow up with: “What problem are you trying so solve? What will the reader get out of this?” [Silence ensues…]

If we can’t explain in fewer than 140 characters what we’re trying to achieve, backed up with basic data and research about our readers, then the idea is likely to fail. (I still struggle to articulate what our initial goal was for Pinterest.)

Our Twitter sub-accounts are another example of “everyone else is doing it” syndrome. We actually stopped posting to some of our sub-accounts, which were churning tweets that reached few people. Earlier this year, three quarters of our social media copy went to Twitter sub-accounts even though Facebook drove the bulk of traffic.

Whenever people now ask me whether we should start another Twitter sub-account, you could probably guess what my reaction to that is.

We’ve learned that an idea is more likely to succeed if we pursue them based on observations about our readers who have already indicated an initial interest in our formats, rather than if we simply impose it on them.

We now try our best not to assume that people are interested in us or our products. People are most interested in themselves and their own problems, first and foremost!

Finally, probe the idea

I’m obsessed with one-pagers because they force us to lay out exactly what we want to do, why we want to do it and how we plan to do it. In one page or so. (Amazon has an interesting version of this approach when considering new products; anyone who wants to suggest a new product has to write a press release announcing its launch. That forces them to consider who the product is aimed at, why it will appeal to them, and how it will differ from rival products.)

In our case, whenever we propose a big idea or project, especially one that requires collaboration with different teams, we use this template:

  • What is the experiment?
  • What problem are we trying to solve / what are we trying to achieve?
  • Who are we targeting?
  • What are the parameters of our experiment?
  • What does success look like?

We start by outlining in clear terms what we plan to do. We then spell out our goals or the problem we want to solve. For example, we decided to experiment with Economist #FactoftheDay cards because we learned from the Brexit referendum campaign that many readers found it difficult to seek out trustworthy data. So we built on these observations by developing easy-to-read fact cards that draw on striking figures from our articles.

Next, we set a time frame for our experiments because a mission with no end in sight is already doomed. For Pinterest, Tumblr and some of the Twitter sub-accounts, it was three months. When we trialled an A/B testing tool for Facebook, it was two weeks. After this initial period, we decide whether to ditch or build on the experiment.

We also work with the data team to set realistic benchmarks against which to track our performance. For our Medium experiment, we are posting US elections content to the platform for the next few months to gauge whether readers there are more, less or just as engaged as our readers on economist.com.

I’m not proposing that product teams should start rejecting every idea that comes through the pipeline. But it helps to have concrete parameters and goals in place to help determine when to say “yes” and “no” to ideas. That way, you’re pursuing ideas that are truly in line with your goals and helping to solve real problems, instead of simply doing things because everyone else is too.

Denise Law is community editor at The Economist