The Scalpel & The Axe: What To Do After The Brainstorm

You and your team have finished the brainstorm. Awesome.

Now you have a long list of ideas (some great, some not so much) but only a few can make it into the final product. It’s time to make decisions and cut. As a side note: the word “decide” comes from the latin “to cut off.” When you decide to do one thing, you decide not to do others. It’s impossible to “decide” to do it all.

There are two ends on the spectrum of decision making (cutting). You can use a scalpel to trim away ideas bit-by-bit, or you can use an axe to chop off big chunks in one hack. Chopping is great because you can leave behind lots of mediocre or half-baked ideas quickly, but if you chop too much at once, your project will bleed out. Trimming is great because it’s far less painful than chopping, but if all you do is trim, then you may never actually reach your core feature and move forward. Not to mention, you’ll waste a lot of time.

Building Mt.Rushmore: Axes & Scalpels

Mt. Rushmore – Kurt Magoon

When should you use the scalpel or the axe? Let’s take Mt. Rushmore as an example. In addition to being an impressive feat of engineering and design, the national monument serves as a great example of chopping and trimming. Or, more aptly, of dynamiting and jackhammering. More than 450,000 tons of rock had to be carved out of Mount Rushmore to form the iconic likenesses of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, etc. (roughly the weight of 500 Boeing 747’s). Of this massive weight, ninety percent of it was blasted away with dynamite (chopped), while ten percent was carved with jackhammers and chisels (trimmed) to provide detail and precise contour to the rock face.

Had the engineers used only dynamite, the final product would look terrible, and had they used only jackhammers, they would still be working today. Rather, they were able to find a ratio which got the project done in a relatively short period of time (14 years – but remember this was in the 1930’s) with a high level of precision and detail.

Naturally, not all projects are alike, so chopping 90% while trimming 10% is not necessarily a model to follow. That said, the thought exercise around deciding where you need to blast vs. carve definitely does apply to any type of development. The real trick is using the right tool at the right time. I’ve found that that’s a lot more art than science.

Getting it wrong, the right way

What happens when you start to trim, and realize you should have chopped? Or realize you’ve chopped when you should have trimmed?

If you get chop-happy and go too far, you’ll really regret having thrown away any ideas and features – even the ones that were cut in the very early stages of development. Save everything somewhere. This ensures that nothing is ever really lost, and space is cheap! Snap a photo of the whiteboard before you erase it. Create a folder in your Google Drive or Dropbox called Archive and just throw stuff in there. Quite often – especially in app development – time is your most valuable resource and having the same conversation twice is a waste of time. Memorialize things before you cut them!

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the real danger may actually lie in trimming when you should be chopping. Apart from wasting precious time you also risk losing the clear vision of what you are trying to achieve with the project, or what you learned in the test of your initial hypothesis. When you trim instead of chop, you end up with a bloated product that not only fails to satisfy your core needs, but also took way too much time to build. If you feel yourself heading down this path, get out that axe ASAP.

Cut early, re-attach later

Fitbit is a good example of a company that probably had the axe out early and often when they were proving their core business hypotheses. Lots of products use badges as a “gamification” technique to drive re-engagement and Fitbit is no exception. But early Fitbit fans will remember that badges were not in the original product. Instead, Fitbit initially tested two clear and simple hypotheses: 1) People will use pedometers to track their steps and 2) social pressure will drive re-engagement.

Fitbit only introduced tests around badges after they had proven out these core hypotheses. After all, the badges feature would have been worthless if the initial core hypotheses were proven wrong – wasting time, money and more importantly energy.

The Bottom Line: You have to cut in every project because you can’t decide to do everything. When you’re testing your main hypothesis, chop with an axe… but don’t chop too much. Once you’ve proven some things, put on your surgeon’s gloves and pull out the scalpel to work on the details of your awesome product.