True Visionary’s go where no one has gone before

Summary : Almost every company wants to be as innovative as Apple and have their own Steve Jobs driving product development. Sadly there is almost always a Steve Jobs in every company. The problem is that few companies are willing to go where no one has gone before, to quote the Star Trek tag line first penned by Gene Roddenberry...

Almost every company wants to be as innovative as Apple and have their own Steve Jobs driving product development. Sadly there is almost always a Steve Jobs in every company. The problem is that few companies are willing to go where no one has gone before, to quote the Star Trek tag line first penned by Gene Roddenberry.

Apple’s business process for product development can be duplicated and it does occur at other companies. The first step is to remember that old kid’s prank of calling a store to ask if they have Prince Albert tobacco in a can. When the shopkeeper answers yes, the kids say, “Well … let him out!” So first, find your company’s Steve Jobs and let him or her out of the can. This is often very difficult for a large company because you will have to overcome many insular local networks that will block the change. Now it is true that the hard part is figuring out who the real Steve Jobs is in your company. The key to uncovering them is that they must be closely aligned to understanding the customer and be able execute to Apple’s business process rules for product development.

Now imagine what it would take to be successful if you were Steve: First, you and your organization must be willing to ignore what the experts, media, and noise channels recommend. Differentiation is about being different and truly different things, different enough to be change agents, come from the edges not the center. To have a product that connects with consumers, you must understand who they are, how they use the product, and what they aspire to be. People who buy from Apple are buying far more than a solution. They are buying an experience and a symbol that will raise their status with their peers. They may need your product, but to make it an Apple, they have to want it so much that it is a burning desire. You can only get there by being outstandingly different and that means you have to watch the customer to a level of understanding that almost turns you into them.

Second, you must align your development team to this. Steve is the key focal point between Apple’s customers and his development teams. Core strengths are useless if they stay in the core. They must be projected to the customer. The customer will seldom know what the product should be until they see it. They know what they want to solve today’s problems, but they can seldom visualize what they will buy because they don’t have the other side of the equation: your strengths and weaknesses on the development side.  So it is the development team’s job to create products that customers will desire.

KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid! At the same time, the development team must be tightly constrained to the design envelope’s objectives. Projects go quickly awry when development teams add features that may address a slice of the market, but add unnecessary cost and complexity. Apple’s decision to cut a camera out of the iPad was a key decision point. Great feature, but it would have added cost and sucked power. The decision weighed on the fact that a camera was not central to the product’s central concept: an information consumption device. If you have a clear vision of the latter, you will intuitively know what features need to be added and what is excess baggage.

What’s so great about KISS, is that when you miss a feature that people really want you will find out after the launch and that will give you the basis for the next version. What makes this so powerful is that customers see new versions as innovation while in tandem, the ever marching power of Moore’s Law makes it possible to add these features later with the same cost, power, and performance envelope that you are in today. You can always do more with technology in the same envelope in the future. So it’s critically important to discipline yourself to stay in the envelope and not over-feature the product.

Third, product development is a dictatorship, not a democracy. The quickest way to have time-to-market slip out is to have a product development democracy. Just look at Washington D.C. if you want proof. Decisions never come fast, while products emerge on the basis of what’s politically possible and never on what’s best for the customer.

Product development dictatorships are very difficult for large organizations. Because for a Steve Jobs to be effective, he must have won the trust of the organization to blindly follow a vision that few will understand until sales start rolling in. This is especially true when your Steve is not the CEO. But be careful, dictatorships can be good or bad. Make sure yours is good. The most important job of the dictator is having a ruthless focus on the customer and keeping development on track to meet the product’s central concept while staying within the cost, power, and performance envelope. The next most important job is to keep the team incentivized and excited about the journey to the goal.

It can work when Steve is not the CEO. Good examples are Paul Otellini when he ran marketing at Intel; Mark Bohr at Intel; Martin van den Brink at ASML; Sass Somekh at Applied Materials; and Bob Graham when he ran marketing at Applied Materials.

So now that you’ve channeled your inner Steve and have an ‘insanely great product,’ how do you turn that into insanely great profits? Two keys here: great marketing and turning customers into evangelists. Remember, the product is so differentiated that the experts, media, and noise channels don’t get it. That means the customer probably won’t as well. Apple spent a small fortune in marketing that allowed customers to visualize themselves using an iPad and how it would be a life-changing computing experience. Beyond the simple value of the brand, that’s what fueled the sales.

Turning customers into evangelists requires that you invert the dictatorship paradigm and adopt a democracy. Dictatorships are best at handling big threats and opportunities because of their strong command and control structure. Big risky decisions get made fast. But they falter at the myriad of small decisions. Apple is different in that they push the authority to deal with customer satisfaction down to the people working in the store. They embrace the customer no matter where they came from. For example their geniuses look at any Apple product that’s under warranty for free, no matter where they bought it. They will help with software issues on the machine that is not Apple software. They don’t promise a solution, but they at least try, which endears the customer to them. If they find something that’s broken, they will often replace it right there. They clearly understand the degree to which the customer values their personal time fussing with a machine.

Finally, they make dealing with these problems fun. They just don’t give you much reason to stay angry with them or their machines.


By G Dan Hutcheson                                     Copyright © All rights reserved.

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