Posts Tagged ‘innovation


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.)


Chasing After Innovation or Money?

Most nights, for the hour or so that I watch tv, I catch at least one Apple commercial. Of late, they’ve included particularly pointed byplay between “Mac” and “PC.”

At the same time, I’ve watched posts flying all over the web about the issues with Mac’s latest operating system, Leopard. And even if Mac users haven’t had issues, some question Leopard’s upgrade value. Before I dive into this issue, let me be clear: this post is not about the superiority of either the Mac or the PC but rather about Apple’s aggressive promotion, in spite of recent problems. Yes, I’m aware that Microsoft hasn’t really let up on its positioning of, “you must buy Microsoft,” but some of their marketing seems more ironic than demanding (the waste bin with iPods to promote the Zune comes to mind). Not so with Apple.

My question for today: Apple has based its brand on the concept of “Just Works;”so what happens when problems start popping up? Does the Apple brand lose credibility, particularly if they ignore that issues exist? The timing of the latest Apple ads has coincided with this very question. I’m also curious, did Apple always push this hard to establish its superiority over the PC? Didn’t they used to take the position that the products speak for themselves?

Steve Jobs, in a 2004 interview he gave to Business Week, pointed out two things about Apple:

You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company. Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise, you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe. But it doesn’t add up to much. That’s what was missing at Apple for a while. There were bits and pieces of interesting things floating around, but not that gravitational pull.


We have a second goal, which is to always make a profit — both to make some money but also so we can keep making those great products. For a time, those goals got flipped at Apple, and that subtle change made all the difference. When I got back, we had to make it a product company again.

I would propose that these two goals have flipped, that Apple is cashing in on the brand it’s built since its inception and that product development is secondary. I think that Apple, taken as a whole from the beginning to now, represents an amazing presence in an industry known for lookalikes and flame outs. However, based on Apple’s most recent performance, I’m less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when they push so hard with their rhetoric.

The PC vs. Mac commercials were so brilliant in the beginning because they highlighted the truly random and oft-time frustrating parts of working on a PC. Now, the ads ring hollow because another story exists about Apple that makes the comparison between Mac and PC difficult to swallow. Yes, Vista problems exist. But Leopard has problems, too. Perhaps I’m unfair, but I expected Vista to have problems. I didn’t expect Leopard to.

At the end, I’m left wondering if Apple has taken that big step from the underdog competitor with a cult-like following into the traditional business world, and along the way, lost a bit of its soul. Apple started with a really bold idea back in the 70s. Over the years, they continued to launch industry-changing products. However, based on recent performance, it’s easy to wonder if the chase after money has superseded the chase after innovation.



No Change Required—Tweaking Experiences

My new favorite thing is Candy Cane Hershey Kisses. Normally, I’m a lover of extra-dark chocolate. White seems wimpy in comparison. However, I’m addicted to the Candy Cane kisses because they combine the white chocolate with a hint of mint and bits of candy cane. These kisses make an excellent example for what you can do when you combine things that may not be as appealing alone as they are together.Combinations

For instance, I’m not a fan of regular candy canes, just like I normally don’t prefer white chocolate. But Hershey’s combined the two, added a little mint, and made me a slave for life. Some of the best things in the world are combinations of two or more lesser known objects.

Recipes, and thus food, are the perfect example of this principle. We can enjoy significant pleasure from combining different foods together, more so than might be possible with a single, unadorned food. Sometimes, I think we take combinations for granted, so much so that we overlook opportunities to create new ones.

Now, think about the people you know. What combinations do they represent? Consider this: how hard is it to separate Steve Jobs from Apple or Bill Gates from Microsoft? Some people, and things, just go together, and the fit happens so easily we don’t feel a need to question it. Now, think about combinations that leave you uncomfortable. AT&T and the iPhone, anyone? Facebook and your online purchases?

Going back to my earlier point about overlooking potential combinations, Noah Kagen makes a great point that, “People have routines. They have their 24 hours in a day and know how they are going to use it.” The best combinations recognize this reality and offer tweaks to improve the current experience in a way that doesn’t require people completely change their routines. A few combinations have broken this rule with impunity. iTunes, for instance, completely changed how people purchased music, but for every iTunes, there’s a

Success doesn’t require that you start from scratch and come up with something completely new. Many of the pieces already exist. I suspect some of the most successful entrepreneurs recognized this potential and saved their sweat and tears for the really “big” new ideas. You’ve heard the cliché, why reinvent the wheel? Well, we aren’t still driving around on stone or wood tires, so somebody recognized the potential to combine a proven concept with something new that improved the experience. Ultimately, that’s what the best combinations do: they make life better than it was before, even if it’s only a little. The boldest ideas may be right in front of you, passed over by people believing that only the “big” ideas are worth pursuing. Feel like proving them wrong?


Images courtesy of MonkeyBoy69 (candy canes), Sir Iwan (mint), and tunnelblik (white chocolate).


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