What game are you playing?
Over the past two decades, I’ve worked on products that failed, and ones that succeeded. Drawing conclusions about the cause of these outcomes is challenging.
First, there are many variables. It’s hard to pinpoint which ones made the difference. Additionally, timing is a big factor. A product that fails for one group can later succeed for someone else (often due to a change in the market). Sometimes execution makes the difference. At others, it comes down to the team and how suited they were to the task.
My perspective comes from helping to design and promote small products and businesses. Most of these were built by only two people. I’m talking about bootstrapped products, which also narrows my expertise. (I’m not apologizing for this; it’s purely to provide context.) I’ve also worked with larger organizations on bigger projects, but I tend to look back on these less frequently.
As I consider the products/businesses we’ve worked on, I see one commonality that stands above the rest. It is that the more singular a business/product’s purpose is, the better the outcome.1
This relates to how a product is presented. A singular product is explained to someone new with a short sentence. Typically it follows this structure: “[Product name] helps [audience/user] achieve [outcome].” It needs no enthusiasm or additions. The moment I find myself saying, “it also does…” or, “this is great because…” I know I’m in trouble.
This singularity isn’t limited to the nature of the product. It also relates to what I wish to achieve by building it. Am I trying to make a profit? Do I want to create an opportunity for others? Is it to see how big I can make it? Is it for fun? Do I want to fix something that’s broken/wrong? (In the context of this article, I’ll refer to these objectives as the game that’s being played.)
Every new reason I add to a product/game acts as a justification. E.g.: “Maybe this first part isn’t that exciting, but when we couple it with this… ta-da!” Or: “Sure, we need to be profitable, but if we aren’t that’s OK—because our mission is so important.”
See what I mean? By adding elements it gets easier to trick oneself into working on something that can’t stand on its own. Worse yet, you can keep adding reasons. With each new one, you further obscure actuality—and your ability to see it as such.
Forcing yourself to be singular in purpose (both with your product and your reasons for making it) frees you to explore alternatives.
If your pitch doesn’t stand on its own, maybe it requires further investigation. Or, it might need a clearer explanation. Alternatively, you might just need to work on something else. (If this is the case, the earlier you recognize it the better.)
Similarly, if your mission is critical—and profit truly doesn’t matter—you have new options. Maybe you can open-source it, run it as a not-for-profit, or give it to someone of means who can ensure it comes to life.
The important part is to know which game you’re playing.2 Are you in it for profit? Fair enough, we all need to pay our bills. Is this for your own edification? Good on you for doing what you love. Do you want to help others? Wonderful! We need more people who think in this way.
Whichever game you choose, recognize what winning looks like—and act as such. Just don’t lie to yourself by pretending to play another game3 if the current one isn’t working out.
It’s hard (arguably inadvisable) to play more than one game at a time.↩
At one point, I wanted our design studio to be a great place to work, build high-quality work for clients, win design awards, push the boundaries of design, and earn the recognition of our peers. That’s a tall order, and we failed at almost all of them. Later, we focused purely on servicing our clients’ needs and dropped everything else. The outcome improved immeasurably.↩
Pivoting repeatedly or continually rewriting your mission statement can indicate that you’re doing this.↩