One definition of “foo foo dust” is a product or feature that really doesn’t do anything, but promises nearly magical properties. It can be used to differentiate one’s products from a competitor’s offerings.
I once worked at a place that made robotic optical libraries. These libraries worked somewhat like a jukebox where the data resided on optical cartridges that were pulled from slots and inserted into drives where their data could be retrieved. Data stored in this manner is called ‘near line’ storage. That is, data that could not be accessed instantly, but could be accessed in under a minute without any human intervention.
The libraries came in sizes from a small desktop model with 16 cartridges and a single drive to products larger than a refrigerator that held 300 cartridges along with 12 drives. One of the innovations of our library was a dual-cartridge picker. This feature saved time because the robot could grab a cartridge and take it to a drive and remove the cartridge that was in the drive and insert the new cartridge without having to store the old cartridge first. That cut the cartridge ‘swap time’ down from about 20 seconds to about 12 seconds, and swap time was very easy to measure and explain to a customer. Thus, it was easy to describe the dual cartridge picker as a competitive advantage. Everyone was pleased.
However, after we’d begun selling this miraculous innovation, someone in the organization reported that the robot was idle about 95% of the time in a typical data room application. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just remove the cartridge from the drive after it was no longer being accessed thus allowing the drive to be empty when the next request to load a cartridge came in? After all, when you got a command to insert a new cartridge into a drive, you had to make the decision about which drive to use so why not empty it during the long periods that the robot was idle? However, if the library did that, it would make the dual-cartridge picker feature useless. This report went over like a ton of bricks. It was not welcomed by the marketing people using the dual-cartridge picker to help sell the product, nor by the engineers whose names were all over the patents. The report was quietly swept under the rug, never to be mentioned again.
We had been unwittingly selling foo foo dust. We had a feature that sounded cool, was easy to explain in a few words, but one that didn’t actually deliver real value. When you dig deep, it’s not hard to find differentiators that sound good when you first hear about them, but that don’t really deliver true value.
It can be very awkward to point out a foo foo dust feature when there is a reverence bordering on worship its perceived value. Sometimes, the head honcho may even have been placed on high because of his involvement in introducing the foo foo dust. So even broaching the subject that you’re selling foo foo dust can be a career limiting move.
What can you do when you suspect your organization is trafficking in foo foo dust? One thing you can do is to bring in an independent party to evaluate the features that are being touted as competitive advantages and, without prejudice, get an honest evaluation on whether what you’re selling really adds value, or if it just give the sales people something to talk about. An independent party can make an evaluation without fear of a reprisal from anyone who has a stake in any potential foo foo dust features. Then at least you’ll know where you stand. If you’ve got features that aren’t actually delivering value yet still costing the customer money, you must ask yourself whether it safe to remove them without losing sales revenue. This can certainly pose a moral dilemma. But in the end, you’re better off avoiding features that add little or no value. The problem with foo foo dust features is that although they can help you sell your products, they will often come back to bite you when your customers find out that they were sold useless features, or perhaps even paid extra because they had been upsold those features.
The long term viability of an organization is best served by avoiding features whose only benefit is that they sound cool. It would be better to ask yourself, ‘If this feature is so great, why don’t any of our competitors offer it?’ And it would also be beneficial to smoke out any foo foo dust in your competitor’s product lines. For example, I’m sure our competitors would have loved to have a copy of the aforementioned report that had been quietly swept under the rug.