why you should focus early: expense vs. optionality

Richard W. DeVaul
2 min readApr 7, 2021

Almost a decade ago, a mentor at Apple drew this chart on a whiteboard: A time axis at the bottom, and two crossing curves. The blue exponentially decaying curve is the influence of decisions in product development. The green exponentially rising curve is the cost of the project, and also the proportional cost of any intervention or fix.

a chart showing two crossing curves vs time: exponentially decaying influence over outcomes, exponentially rising costs
why you need to fix your sh*% now

It’s so simple, right? Things start out cheap, then quickly get more expensive. You have maximum ability to affect the outcome at the beginning, which declines quickly as you make decisions and close down optionality.

Trying to fix a product two days after you started? Cheap and easy. Trying to fix a product two days before you ship? Insanely expensive and virtually impossible.

The problem is that most managers and directors pay attention to expense, not optionality. They focus on the big, expensive, late-stage projects in trouble, not early-stage development. They end up trying to fix things late, when nearly all important decisions have already been made, when everything is expensive and options are bad. Why weren’t they paying attention six or nine months ago?

The moral for innovation leadership? Focus early, fix early. Your impact on the future will never be greater than it is right now.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, you might be interested in my “Managing Innovation” essay series which begins with Innovation isn’t what you think it is, and other essays on devaul.medium.com. You can also follow me on twitter @rdevaul and on linkedin as rdevaul

Richard W. DeVaul

Founder, mad scientist, moonshot launcher. Writes on innovation, entrepreneurship, and social/queer issues. ex-CTO of Google X. @rdevaul on twitter