Black Swan Farming

Catching waves: speed and patience

One of the most incredible things I have experienced as a human being is the feeling of riding a moving wall of water. I am most happy when I’m paddling around in a rubber suit putting myself in the path of rolling mountains of H2O and trying to catch them. Living in London means I don’t get to do this as often as I’d like. My surfing experience over the last twenty or so years reminds me a lot of the parallels between riding moving walls of water and what it takes to surf the waves of change and innovation.

To catch a wave (to say nothing about actually riding it) two things are required:

  1. you need to be in the right place, at the right time
  2. you need to be paddling fast enough to plane the board so you can pop up as the wave begins to pass.

You could say the same about innovation:

  1. you need to be in the right place, at the right time. This might be technology shifts as well as the industry or geography
  2. you need to be developing fast enough to have the right product/market fit as the wave begins to pass.

Failing to get both of these right means you miss the window of opportunity. With surfing, being in the right place at the right time is necessary, but not sufficient. If I’m too slow, the result is that the wave passes me and I don’t catch the wave at all, or I catch it too late and go “over the falls”. The result looks like this –>

In product development, a great example of this is the OS/2 operating system for PCs. This was jointly developed by IBM and Microsoft and was billed to be the “system of the future”. They started developing it in August 1985 and it took two years to get to the first release. Version 1.3, which had a graphical user interface was eventually released in 1990, but by this time Microsoft’s own Windows 3.0 was starting to streak ahead, having caught the wave, leaving OS/2 to go over the falls.

One way of looking at this is to consider how quickly you can deliver improvements or new products or services. You might say that your development speed is a key capability, for which the cost of delay is high.

The paradox is that you also need to be patient, waiting for the right moment to go to market, “releasing” your paddling speed in order to catch the wave as it passes. Knowing when to start paddling requires knowledge and experience to recognise the benefit of delay. If I’m impatient, the result is that I end up too far ahead of the wave and it breaks on my head. Can you imagine what it is like to have several metric tonnes of sea water crash onto your head?

In product development, one example of going to market too early is the Apple Newton. Arguably, it was ahead of it’s time as a handheld computing device. (In fact, cNet in 2006 compared a 10 year old Apple Newton to the brand new Samsung Q1 – and declared the Newton as the winner, despite the 10 years between them). The problem for the Newton in the ’90s was that some of the technology  just wasn’t quite advanced enough, resulting in poor battery-life and handwriting-recognition that was panned by critics.

It was the right idea though (as the iPad has proven). But the way it was refined and realised as a product (and perhaps the go-to-market strategy)  just wasn’t quite ready. Apple learned a valuable lesson from this and other product failures about the value of being patient.

What both of these situations demonstrate is the paradox of product development. Here we have two variables that are seemingly in opposition to each other. We need to have a high sense of urgency but patient. Fast, but not hurried. We might say that our capability to catch waves is orthogonal to the decision as to when to use that capability. In the same way, the speed at which we are capable of developing improvements and new products is orthogonal to our decision to go-to-market with those improvements or new products.

We can also go too far in trying to analyse the situation for the perfect position and perfect moment. Just like product development, there is only so much knowledge you can glean by sheer force of analysis. Not trying means not learning the patterns you need to do better next time. For the record,  those missed opportunities look like this:

I’d put a picture here of the opportunities your organisation is missing out on, but that’s for you to dream up…