Posted by Tom Grant on May 27, 2009
You just got out of the meeting with potential customers, and they're not big fans of your Big Idea. You were sure it was brilliant, but they just don't get it. Or they applaud the effort, but they think you're going approaching it from the wrong angle.
Here's the moment of truth when many projects go bad, and sometimes drag companies down with them. The crisis isn't unique to the technology industry--there's the cautionary tale of New Coke, after all, from a well-established industry that should have known better--but given the immaturity of the technology industry, and the plasticity of the work product, it happens quite often.
At this moment of truth, development teams choose from among the following responses:
- "These people are idiots. Let's go."
- "They're not idiots, but they're not our market. Let's keep setting meetings until we find people who can appreciate what we're trying to do."
- "Maybe if we talk more, they'll finally get it."
- "Maybe we didn't put enough into the first version. Let's go back and see what enhancements will make the product more appealing."
- "We've committed too much into this project to stop now. Forward! We'll work out the sales and marketing later."
- "Maybe we had a good idea, but we went about it the wrong way."
- "Maybe there isn't the market for this idea."
Adam Smith, meet Sigmund Freud and Niccolo Machiavelli
At moments like this, we can see why the simplistic economic model of the firm as a unified, rational actor makes zero sense. All of these responses might be the correct one. A rational, unified actor should select among them impartially, based on their inherent risks and rewards. For example, if there really isn't a market for the idea, the consequences are dire. (If you were a game theorist, you'd work as hard as possible to prevent this kind of "nuclear option," even if the risks were low.)
Unfortunately, companies are not rational, nor are they unified. People have strong emotional attachments to their ideas, the people with whom they work, and the work itself. They also worry about the politics within their organization. For example, what happens to your reputation as a Wunderkind if your latest great idea turns out to be a flop? And what will the investors, or Management, think?
Market test early and often
This is exactly when the organization needs professional product management and product marketing, as long as you're serious about getting someone's honest assessment. Is the problem with the invention itself? If so, you need someone who can do an objective, credible appraisal of the problem, if it exists, with the product. Is the problem with your explanation of its value? If so, it's critical now to address that problem quickly and professionally, if you're going to build any market momentum, pre- and post-launch.
Inventors need product management and product marketing as early as possible. Unfortunately, in the history of the technology industry, that scenario doesn't happen as often as it should. Companies commit people and resources to an idea before it gets real market testing, or even a clear picture of who's going to use it, who's going to buy it, and why.
Innovation is more than just inspiration
Innovation--the art and science of converting inspiration into adoption--doesn't really start until someone performs these tasks. Therefore, the moment of truth depends on admitting the possibility that you don't know your target market as well as you should.
When the market feedback is disappointing, you need to establish some emotional distance from your idea. The invention still may have a bright future, but the consequences of being wrong might be disastrous. If you find yourself looking for reasons why you were right all along, without taking any time to question your ideas, or even the people with whom you're working, then you know you're setting yourself up for failure.
[P.S. If you're looking for other examples of this principle in practice, let's just say that the point is as valid in US foreign policy as it is in the technology industry.]
[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]