Predictability vs Consistency

Old Faithful Retro-fiedOn the Fast Company blog, I found this post highlighting the dangers of predictability for a business, in this case, Starbucks:

It’s not just the service that is average, but predictable. The coffee is the same way…Predictability can be a double edged sword. It can put people in auto pilot, for example. Or it can lull a company into believing that all is well as its best customers start moving away. Predictability is the friend of complacency and taking things for granted—on both sides of a relationship. Was Starbucks too much of a good thing? Maybe predictability is fine if you achieve success, then move on to innovate in another (or related) area.

To date, society has taken comfort in predictability, but I think we’re seeing a change. For example, the success of the VCR, followed by the DVR, highlights how we want to watch video on our own schedule. We don’t want the predictability of being glued to the television at a specific time on a certain day.

The Losers of Predictability

We’ve embraced the innovation of picking the time, and even place, for our viewing. And we’ve seen how advertisers and media producers have panicked at the notion that they no longer control our eyeballs on a specific schedule. These groups have lost the predictability of a captive viewing audience, which has destroyed their equations for determining value at a particular time.

I believe that’s predictability’s underlying weakness: once the core of something predictable is lost, it can’t be recovered. The question remains, how do you determine if you’ve become too complacent to innovate and recover? Starbucks answered the challenge to its dominance from companies like McDonald’s by recently starting a pilot program in Seattle that offers a small coffee for $1, along with free refills in on all sizes.

The hope that you’ll one day have this amazing thing that’s too great to change applies to a very small percentage of ideas (classic Coke vs. new Coke, anyone?). The market, and customers, will require that businesses maintain a balancing act between predictability and innovation. Remember the famous words of Charles H. Duell who headed the U.S. Patent Office:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.“(link)

That was in 1899. He was slightly wrong.

Confusing Predictability with Consistency

Old Faithful, the famous geyser in West Yellowstone National Park, was so named for its predictable eruption schedule. While still predictable to an extent, the average time between eruptions has lengthened:

Because Old Faithful has held to its historic pattern, park naturalists can still accurately predict most of the geyser’s eruptions within a window of about 20 minutes. But some visitors lose patience with the geothermal wonder.

“The one comment the naturalists hear a lot when they tell people the prediction is, ‘That long?'” said Yellowstone spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews. “Some people don’t want to wait.”

The shift in the geyser’s pattern to more frequent long intervals between eruptions does not mean Old Faithful is losing steam, as many headline-writers crowed when the geyser’s slowdown was first widely reported in the 1980s.

Generally, the longer an eruption, the longer the geyser will take to recharge before the next eruption, providing the basis for park naturalists’ predictions. And the longer the geyser takes to recharge, the taller and longer the next eruption will be and, consequently, the more water it will eject.

By taking its time between eruptions, Old Faithful may have figured out how to put on more striking shows by sending water higher on average than it used to. (link)

I would argue that Old Faithful changed its predictability, but not its consistency. Old Faithful consistently produces eruptions, although on a slightly different schedule, but with even more exciting results. You don’t have to be predictable to be consistent, and I think it’s consistency that matters more to customers and creates a stronger impression. You might be muttering, “Aren’t consistency and predictability the same thing?” Not really, from my perspective. Here’s an example of my interpretation.

You likely won’t get the same customer service rep each time you attempt to resolve an issue with a particular company. If you did, that would be predictability. However, if you get the same results, regardless of the rep, that’s consistency. Which would you rather have? The same rep or the same results? The debate is far from over, but as I hear people discussing what I consider to be the differences between predictability and consistency, I hear more people voting in favor of consistency. And I believe that consistency is much more kind to innovation that predictability.


(Image courtesy of brothergrimm. Some rights reserved.)


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January 2008
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