When to be Visionary, When to Adjust

[Another book work-in-progress sneak peek here. This is from the chapter on Adaption — making continuous adjustments to strategy and offerings based on ongoing monitoring of the changing environment.]

We have all seen an intriguing new idea shot down prematurely. New ideas are inevitably rough, full of holes, unproven. The more radical the idea, the more this will be true. If an organization is set up for incremental innovation, the bias will be to poke the holes rather than support the promise. Often a charismatic and influential leader is necessary to shepherd the ideas along and provide the high-level guiding vision.

But the best leaders also recognize that in a complex world sticking to a vision come hell or high water can also be a recipe for disaster. In the face of rapid change, effective adaption requires an understanding of the gap between how the world is, and our aspirations for how it could be. But it can often be hard to conceptually bridge that gap.

The problem, of course, is that it is often hard to tell the wheat from the chaff ahead of time. To quote another sage, St. Hubbins (that would be David St. Hubbins, of the fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap), “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” This basically sums up the paradox. How do you deal with the fact that sometimes clever and stupid are the exact same thing, it is just a matter of timing that determines whether you are a hero or a zero? (This post from a few years ago goes into more detail.)

So is it better to adhere closely to a vision and ignore the brickbats of stick-in-the-muds, or to adapt the concept based on feedback from experts and customers, and changes in the competitive context?

A simple diagram illustrates the capriciousness of this dilemma:

These well-known examples show that both staying true to the vision and adjusting it can result in hits or flops.

Jeff Bezos had a vision for 1-Click which met initial resistance from customers when tested, but by making some small changes they turned it into a very popular feature.

By contrast, New Coke, one of the most famous big flops in all of business, was chasing a need that did not exist — Coca-Cola was simply responding to the taste tests that Pepsi were running on television. Coca-Cola lacked conviction behind the new product, and it was not truly rooted in what customers wanted.

Like New Coke, “Betamax” has become a synonym for product failure, albeit one that hung on for ten years or so before giving up the ghost. Sony’s vision for Betamax focused on recording TV-shows, but its one-hour recording time was too short for movies or lengthy sporting events. Furthermore, Sony did not see the opportunity in selling tapes pre-recorded with movies. JVC’s competing VHS format addressed both these issues. After launch, Sony did not adequately adjust to respond to emergent customer needs, costing it its first-mover advantage.

During development and the run-up to product launch we want to be triangulating on the emerging problem definition (i.e. the problem the product is intended to solve) from as many angles as possible to give ourselves a full picture and confidence that the vision is indeed on target. Negative comments from customers must be put in that broader context.

We do not want to get in the trap of being led around by the nose by customers. As my colleage Albert Tan observes, focus groups were originally called that because they were intended to focus the research; they were never intended to be the research. Unfortunately at many organizations, focus groups have become a substitute for taking ownership of the vision, as was the case at Coca-Cola when they introduced New Coke.

After launch, we should stay deeply immersed to pick up the signals, large and faint, that indicate how close we were to the mark. Chances are, we did not get it exactly right the first time — with an X-problem you almost never do. So we need to see where the gaps are between what people want and what the product can do, but again filtering this through the lens of an expertise-informed vision of the future. As customers adapt to our new offering, we want to see how they change their habits and what new needs emerge. Doing so will avoid being the next Betamax.

Sadly, there is no pat answer whether to stay unwavering to your vision, or adjust it based on feedback.

Passion and Compassion

Another frog colleague, Mark Olson, suggests a nice way to think about it. First, do you have passion for the vision? That is, are you truly committed to it because you believe in its potential? Do you see promise where naysayers only see faults? Do you see the clever-ness where others see stupidity? Second, is the vision rooted in compassion for customers? In other words, is it based on a deep understanding of underlying customer needs, perhaps ones that they have not expressed explicitly?

If both of these are true, then staying close to the vision may be the correct course. (That does not mean that particulars of the instantiation of the vision cannot be adjusted based on feedback, however.)

If only one or the other is true, then you should stay open to new possibilities for what the vision is, or what customers truly need.

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