Game changers, table stakes, distractions

How to build an effective roadmap

“You do not have a time problem. You have an energy problem. The reason you only get three hours of stuff done on Saturday and then you ‘waste’ the rest of the day is because you had three hours of energy.” - Hinkley, Hacker News  

The concept of maximizing your energy is interesting, but let’s assume productive energy is capped. How do you go about best spending what you have?

It comes down to effective resource allocation. Building a product/business is resource allocation on steroids because you determine how dozens, maybe even thousands of people spend their energy.

There are three ways to allocate your resources:

  1. Game changers
  2. Table stakes
  3. Distractions

Game changers change the trajectory of what you’re building. They get customers to say “hell yes”. Table stakes prevent customers from saying “hell no”. Distractions are everything else. These three categories make up every roadmap.

Should we eliminate all distractions and train our focus on game changers? Not quite.

Understanding game changers

Game changers emerge from recognizing the subtle constraints of your space, and finding a creative way around it.  

A topical example is TikTok’s algorithm. They saw the traditional social graph as a constraint, and devised a shortcut to deciphering interest unbounded by who you already know. The shortcut is a feature-rich format that learns your taste profile at mind-boggling speed.

A more classic example is Amazon’s Prime program. From the start, they were obsessed with understanding: why do people not purchase (more) on Amazon? The famous answer is shipping fees, a dose of pain with every purchase. The Prime program turned this pain into delight through unlimited free shipping for a small fee.

How to find game changers

This is the holy grail of getting something off the ground. Here are some approaches to improve your odds:

  1. Understand why you’re not growing faster - what are you bound by?
  2. Understand what your customers feel and why, across their entire workflow
  3. Examine changing assumptions - what are you now uniquely able to do?
  4. Embrace “yes and” over “yes but”
  5. Use every attempt as feedback to update your thinking around what works

The last piece is particularly important.

Game changers require intimate knowledge of the problem space, which takes time, mistakes to learn from, and many iterations to get right. When you’re new, you should try a variety of ideas, and use the results as quick feedback loops.

Game changers also tend to look like distractions in the beginning. Amazon’s AWS was widely panned as a distraction, but is now worth half a trillion dollars. If the value were obvious to most people, it would already be reaped.

In order to nurture game changers, you need to be comfortable with looking foolish
as you pressure test your ideas. You need to entertain distractions and be disciplined about testing their value.

Where frameworks fail

The most popular framework for prioritizing resources is RICE: (reach x impact x confidence) / effort. It helps you rank ideas based on ROI. However, it’s often dangerously misapplied.

By assigning every feature a score, you over-index on table stakes. Features that are perceived “quick wins” crowd out riskier game changers. Your roadmap is filled with peanuts like changing the color of the sign-up button rather than creating a better onboarding, which could be a more promising opportunity that requires a bundle of features to get right. 

Following the framework perfectly results in mediocre products.

Impact sizing keeps you honest, but you should do it at the opportunity level rather than individual features.
If an opportunity makes the cut, you commit to the must-have features to test it out. This trains your focus on creating a coherent big picture instead of a patchwork of random features. It also enables you to craft a mix of potential game changing opportunities (which may end up being distractions!) with table stakes wins.

What’s the right ratio?

When you’re at a startup, game changers are the only way to break out of obscurity. You need to focus on things that meaningfully depart from convention.  

When you’re at a growth-stage company, the rules change. Your roadmap needs to be a portfolio of potential game changers and table stakes. Why? As you expand beyond your original niche, table stakes become more important to fending off the “hell no”s. As you grow, you also incur technical debt and UX paper cuts that need to be fixed to retain and attract new customers.

Most importantly, game changers that got you to this stage are like diamonds in the rough— to realize their full potential, you need to polish them with table stakes. The concept of Instagram filters, for example, was a game changer in reducing the barrier to posting — a key constraint in the app’s growth. They have since expanded their library of filters to cover a broad spectrum of aesthetic preferences (table stakes), and used the foundation to launch new game changers in creator tools including Q&As.

When you’re at an established company, the rules change yet again. The game changers invented by others (e.g., TikTok) suddenly become threats to your core (e.g., Instagram Reels). Their game changers become your table stakes. You feel you have a lot to lose, so most new things are threatening. You find yourself chasing distractions, and slowly forgetting your inventive roots. You slowly lose the ability to change the game on your terms. You compensate by creating a separate team focused on inventing, hoping you can preserve the spark.

By understanding this lifecycle, you can figure out the types of places you will thrive in. The exact stages are not inevitable per se, but the arc is shared by most. Asking for examples of game changers, table stakes and distractions is an effective way to cut through the BS and understand what a team is really up against.

What’s right for you?

When you’re the new kid on the block, finding “quick wins” that tend to be table stakes is actually a great way to kickstart your momentum. It’s also easier to ladder up from table stakes to game changers because the simple act of building things trains your intuition to take greater risks thoughtfully.

We all crawl before we walk, but we forget to apply that principle to building products.

When you’ve mastered the fundamentals, trying bigger swings is a great opportunity to learn on the company’s dime. Especially at a place that’s friendly towards bold experiments, you can push your limits and learn more about yourself. Perhaps you discover that there’s no greater thrill, and you want to do your own thing. Or that you prefer the steady gains of improving table stakes.

By trying the different flavors and understanding where you can create the most value, you’re in a position to allocate your most finite resource: your energy.

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