Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Managing the tricky transition from “idea?” to “idea!”

When Steve Jobs shortlisted the idea of portable music player during an offsite in 2001, the idea had many unknowns. These included questions such as, Who is the customer? Which technology do we use? What business model shall we adopt? Etc. Let’s denote such an idea with the notation “idea?” The question mark at the end indicates that the idea has uncertainty associated with it. Fast forward 3 years and Jobs was in Madison, New York City and he saw people wearing white headphones on every block. That is when he realized that the idea has taken off – it has become “idea!” – an idea without much uncertainty. Every successful innovation goes through this transition from “idea?” to “idea!”. However, many fumble during the transition. Let’s see how in this article.

Tata Nano stands out for the unusual pre-launch publicity it got as an innovation. As it was being launched several success stories were being written. However, the car has done far below expectations so far. In FY 2012-13, 23K Nanos were sold, in the first half of FY 2013-14 10K Nanos were sold as against the nominal factory output of 250K cars per anum (source: Wikipedia). As Nano was being designed and developed, I am sure it was being treated as an “idea?”. However, as it was being launched, was Team Nano  already treating the idea as “Nano!” – sort of “done deal!”. This part is not very clear. At this stage, the business model (Who, What, How) was still untested and hence it should have been treated as “Nano?” and subjected to rigorous testing. Based on the publicly available information, it looks as if that didn’t happen (I could be wrong here).

No matter how successful an idea is, it doesn’t last forever. Hugely successful iPod is no exception. Around a year ago  (Jan 2014), Tim Cook CEO of Apple announced, “All of us have known for some time that iPod is a declining business.” In fact, in 2009, Peter Oppenheimer, then CFO of Apple, mentioned, “We expect our traditional MP3 players to decline over time as we cannibalize ourselves with iPod Touch and the iPhone” So when did the iPod go back from “idea!” (success guaranteed) to “idea?” (future uncertain) state again? Well, it was in the same year in which Steve Jobs had seen iPod on every block in Madison, New York City – 2004. It was in this year that Jobs expressed his concern in an Apple Board meeting, “The device that can eat our lunch is cell phone.” The project that got started eventually led to the creation of iPhone.

That brings us back to the question – Is there anything like “idea!”? Can there ever be a state in the journey of a product where success is guaranteed? I don’t think so. In fact, the euphoria around the market success can be a sure shot sign of some untested assumption being overlooked. The only time an idea enters “idea!” state is while it enters the sunset zone – and the certainty is that of death! Of course, in the case of iPod, even that is uncertain in the near future.

In short, no matter how fantastic your idea is, don't be in a hurry to treat it as an "idea!". Treat it as an "idea?"  and be clear about the key untested assumptions at every stage of its evolution.

source: Steve Jobs comment on the future of iPod that he presented to the board is mentioned in his biography "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, page 465.


  1. Nice post Vinay ! Few thoughts from my side ! As you had said every idea initially is to be treated as Idea ? only. But the chances of succeeding with an Idea ? , in the market place can be enhanced by meticulously following certain steps before test marketing a) Look at the adoption hurdles , Identify and act on it ( Stake holders and society ) b) Why the customer would change , By changing what are his benefits ( pot of gold ) and carefully identifying identifying what are the risks ( crutches ). By not changing ( By not adopting the Idea ? ) , what he is currently enjoying ( mermaid ) and the threats to him ( alligator ). After this is done , we have to position our product , by which , the crutches are minimised and alligator is Visible to him. In TOC parlance ,We call this as four quadrants of change matrix.
    Best Regards

  2. Thanks for sharing the four quadrants of change matrix, LRN. I am sure it will be helpful.