Bill Taylor, blogger at the Harvard Business Review website, has an insightful post on two innovative companies. One of them is 37signals, a company whose products I’ve been using for a couple of years (Backpack, Basecamp) and which is admired by users and Web 2.0 companies everywhere.
If you have any experience with a 37signals product, you know that their two defining features are simplicity and intuitiveness (also defining features of the two most successful tech companies of this century, Apple and Google). During the recent Business Innovation Factory Conference, reports Taylor, the co-founder of 37signals explained their philosophy towards product development:
…if you try to make everyone happy with your products, you end up with mediocrity. Our company has opinions, and we build products based on those opinions.
This statement speaks to two sides of the product development process, whether the product is a movie, a restaurant dish, or an electronics device.
One side is consumer-oriented. Individualization is a theme in almost every consumer product and medical field these days. The more that a company can meet the unique needs of individual consumers, the more they differentiate themselves from companies that produce products for everyone that excite no one.
Taylor expands upon the thoughts from the 37signals co-founder:
If you’re going to do something original, something distinctive, something great, then almost by definition you’re not going to be right for everyone.
Disruptive technology, as described in The Innovator’s Dilemma, begins by meeting the niche needs of a select group of customers, technology that is initially deemed unwanted by the majority of traditional customers. The Long Tail is an extreme of this model of meeting the unique needs of individuals rather than a general product for everyone. Mainstream companies, however, are also embracing this approach (consider Nike’s consumer customizable shoes). Tivo, YouTube and independent films are all variations of this theme: either providing unique offerings for unique customers or allowing consumers to create their own customization.
Addressing the unmet needs of a unique group of potential customers is one road to product innovation.
The other side of the 37signals statement that I referred to earlier is the company side. The way that companies choose to develop their ideas and products is critical to the innovation development that will drive their marketplace differentiation.
I’ve always felt that design by committee produces a lowest-common-denominator result. Take several brilliant chefs/authors/directors and ask them to create something together, and the result will be significantly less creative and satisfying than what each could produce individually. Creativity and innovation require risk and the execution of a unique vision, both of which get diluted and ground down through compromise.
I’m not saying that collaboration and interacting with others is detrimental—on the contrary, this is one of the best ways of developing new ideas—but ultimately a singular vision has to be created that the company follows, whether everyone is in agreement or not. Jobs is brilliant at this, and even when his ideas fail, as with NeXT, they still demand the respect of having achieved innovation at the highest level (of course, much of what NeXT developed was ultimately integrated successfully into the remake of Apple).
I’ve got a strong feeling that the concept of entropy, which in information theory is a measure of uncertainty in a signal, can be applied to these concepts. High entropy systems are less predictable and embody more originality in its signals than low entropy systems. The most innovative companies/ideas/people would be quantized as having high entropy in an information theoretic applied to innovation. Any mathematicians want to give it a go?