Listening versus envisioning

In a recent post, “Hobby horse before the cart”, I told the sad story of an entrepreneur who had developed a product, discovering that the market did not need it. Some folks reacted on Twitter and contrasted this to what they call the “Build your vision!” evangelists.

These evangelists encourage us to not be constrained by what we see in the market, to imagine truly innovative products that don’t currently exist, to have the belief to go out there and evangelize about the benefits of our products.

Is there a conflict here? Do we need to make a choice between building a vision and listening to our target customers?

The peddlers of self-help management books love to give you simple black and white answers, don’t they? Do this! Don’t do that! Prêt-à-Porter Picks for the Perfect President shouts at you “Nine out of ten successful company Vice Presidents wear underwear! Wear more underwear!” Pants!

I rarely think there is a black and white answer to anything (except perhaps the fallacious nature of the self-help management books). Instead I like to think of iterative, agile and, err … Goldilocks.

Yes, you really must understand what is out there in the market. There may be a competitor already offering your product vision in another industry, or a compelling reason why customers would struggle to adopt your product. This is an outwardly focused task; you need to be out there talking to people about what they do, how they do it, and how it makes them money.

But you also need to create a compelling vision of a new product. A “me too” incremental idea is just not going to survive in the competitive jungle. That vision needs to be based upon, and tested against, target customers needs. So that makes the process iterative; go listen, create vision, go present it and listen some more, refine vision, rinse, repeat. Do this quickly; be agile, and you will get to a good result more quickly, but also be more sure of its validity. Don’t do either too much, or too little, and that gives you the Goldilocks balance.

But, don’t get stuck in this circle, you need to start building the product. Get to a prototype quickly and you can include that in your next round of checking with the market. As you do so you can start to build and test the messaging that will ultimately sell your product to that market.

The world must have been a very different place, 30 years ago, when we were all taught to write the spec and then plan the 5 year product development. Waterfall seemed so logical – we must have been mad!

Come to think of it, maybe the world is mad enough to buy Management Pants. Just think of the possibilities; trainer pants for management apprentice schemes, support shorts for those in need of mentoring, Teflon jocks for the non-stick CEOs, and the ever popular consultant’s corset…

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