Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Opportunity’s “Eye of the Needle”

Discovering an emerging need and filling it is a bit like threading a needle. If we assume we will get it on the first try we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

The persistence of this “first try” expectation is as striking as it is common and chronic, particularly among companies with established revenue streams. Perhaps it is because some of our companies have become so successful for so long that we have lost our institutional memory of those earlier entrepreneurial times. Perhaps our very focus on competitively differentiating our product offerings blinds us, at least in part, to subtle shifts in the needs, values and behavior of our end-users.  Many have succumbed to the seduction of the competition, beating a rival, but have lost touch with the very needs of the people we seek to serve.

Some principles for addressing this “first try” expectation can be found in Stefan H. Thomke’s book, Experimentation Matters (HBS Press, 2003).  Thomke suggests both how important and how difficult it has become for companies to get out from under the tyranny of their own success.  “True experimentation is all too rare in successful companies.” So-called “productive failures” – those that produce significant technical and end-user insights – become increasingly rare in organizational cultures of success. The central message from Experimentation Matters – a manifesto for learning from early experimentation (and exploration) efforts – is simply “fail,” first, fast, frequently and in the field (our paraphrase).

Beyond Thomke’s principles for experimentation and exploration, however, are at least two other principles for threading the needle of discovering emerging needs upon which to base future growth.  Both of these principles, and their associated practices, aim to discover needs that are robust and resilient enough in the first place to sufficiently motivate further experimentation and the patience to withstand the inevitable resistance.

One is to actually slow time down.  What may be right under our noses can be more easily revealed when we watch the routines of people in which we have an interest, in slow motion.  Several years ago in an engagement with a client in the facial tissue business, we experimented with consumers, one-on-one, asking them to describe in slow motion what they were doing and experiencing when they reached for a facial tissue.  Though it was awkward for people to do so – asking them to slow something down that is so routine, unconscious and automatic – the results were profound.  It actually led to the discovery of proprietary (at the time) insights that, in turn, lead to a whole new and more dynamic test and measurement framework from which several new successful products emerged.  Ezra Pound put it succinctly years ago, “Glance is the enemy of vision.”

Another principle is to change your point of view.  Landscape painters and photographers practice this principle when they try out different angles from which to view, capture or render the “truth” of what they are seeing.  Several years ago Eli Callaway had already committed to a state-of-the-art golf ball production facility, but needed a fresh reason for golfers to be interested in golf balls.  We knew that conducting traditional qualitative market research (e.g., focus groups) was unlikely to turn up anything new and different.  In our search for the right point of view, we went to a handful of non-celebrity (to avoid the “pose” factor) experts – a golf course architect, a veteran equipment salesman-turned-teaching professional, and a few others – and asked what we thought was a fairly innocent question – why do people keep playing the game?  Their reaction to our question – “All these years in the business and no one has ever asked me that question before” – suggested that we were on an interesting track.  We had simply changed our point of view from the conventional.

We were speaking with Dick Sperry of The Sperry Group, Inc., recently about how he “gets a vision.”  Unlike the typical image many of us have that the visions come up front and instantly, Dick described a much longer, more iterative process of observing end-users, trying something out with them, watching what happens, and trying again.  What struck me about what Dick said was that vision isn’t finished until well into the development process, even to the point where a customer nicknames the new tool.

Many of us – particularly those of us who are process-oriented – believe that first comes a discovery of a need and then comes the invention of a solution to that need.  However, actual experience suggests that the discovery of a need is more closely coupled with the invention of a solution.  We seldom, if ever, get it on the “first try.”  It requires empathy, imagination, patience and understanding.  Ironically, we can actually accelerate our time-to-market, if we just slow down early in the front-end exploration and change our point of view.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2004. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270. 

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