In the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, a princess avoids losing her baby by saying the secret name of an evil creature who would otherwise collect the child as payback for the spinning of straw into gold. When the princess speaks his name, Rumpelstiltskin disappears never to be heard from again. The story was published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, but like most Grimm fairy tales, its origins are much older. (Part of the legend of Saint Olaf, who lived a thousand years before the Grimms wrote their first book, involves the discovery of a troll’s true name.) Gaining power by knowing a demon’s real name has come up in movies (The Exorcist) and is relevant to the workplace as well.
People tend to shy away from admitting weakness or failure, but if you say the name of a project’s demon out loud, it tends to lose much of its power. For example, despite what stakeholders may demand, no single interface is going to completely satisfy the needs of all possible users. Confronting stakeholders can be so daunting that you may be in denial about the unreasonableness of some of their requirements. But this just makes it more likely that the project will blow up closer to implementation.
By saying out loud “this interface won’t work as well for newbies” or “this product will bore super-users” or “internal users are going to need their own solution,” the power of the unreasonable requirements is greatly diminished. It can lead you away from the wrong arguments (“so how are you going to make this work better for newbies?”) and onto real solutions (“a design optimized for newbies is going to slow down experienced users who are essential to this project’s success.”)
Even the best solution will have flaws and limitations. It’s frequently more effective to identify those flaws and limitations than to silently struggle to perfect things that are inherently imperfect.