Are your products on cruise control?

What some of those furloughed employees have been up to during lockdown…

Boy are we looking forward to getting out of lockdown!

One of the coping tactics that I use, and I know others do too, is imagining what life will be like in a post-covid world. Putting aside the downright depressing idea that we may never have an entirely post-covid world, it relieves the boredom to imagine going out for a pint, a meal or even a holiday.

From a business point of view, ideas of a post-covid world are likely to divide starkly into two. There will be those anticipating, perhaps longing, for a return to how things were. The status quo. The good old routine. Cruising on autopilot. The ‘we never realised how good it was until we lost it’ brigade. Conversely there will be those who are champing at the bit to start a whole new life. Maybe it is one where they no longer throw 4 hours or more of their life away everyday commuting. Maybe it is one where they get to concentrate for more than five minutes without being interrupted by the office moron. Or, maybe, just maybe, they have had an idea.

Now the first group need to yank themselves out of the warm glow of imagining a bucolic future where all is rosy and start to wonder what kind of idea it is that someone in the second group has had.

Yes, they have taken some extraordinary measures, measures they could not have imagined ever taking just twelve months ago. Burnt down those rainy-day reserves that had been built up over many years. Taken out generous government sponsored loans, which however generous, are going to be sitting on the balance sheet for years. Furloughed staff, cancelled tradeshows, delayed projects, put products into maintenance mode and put our faith in our web presence. Still, it is all going to be worth it because we are going to cruise out the other side, ready to reengage with the market.

They will hit the ground running, they promise each other. They will launch marketing campaigns, will head off on the biggest business trip ever to reengage with key customers, and will be really aggressive with pricing to kick start business again.

All of this assumes that the market they will be re-joining is the market that they left in March 2020. Oh, I am sure you have considered how the customers’ needs might have developed. You will also have your eye on all your competitors to see what they are doing too. Though they will be stuck in the same year-old time capsule that you are.

What you will not see coming are the new entrants with those pesky innovative ideas.

Remember how that employee kept bugging you about some customer feedback they had heard at a tradeshow (or customer visit, or support call)? Remember how you were totally over committed at the time and could do nothing more than promise to put it on the backlog? Remember how in order to save the cash you had to, very regrettably, put that employee on furlough?

Maybe it was not you, maybe it was a competitor, or another company in the industry, or maybe another company entirely. It really does not matter.

Well, guess what those employees have been doing during lockdown? No, not gardening, not playing computer games, not reading Dickens chronologically (no, really, I’ve a friend who did). No, they have been building product.

What is more is that they have been building it from the ground up. They have taken the time to research the latest and greatest technology stacks for delivering cloud-based services that are easily accessible on any device. They have started with a bunch of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) that you have not even heard of and planted their software spade into a completely green field.

They will not be shackled by the decades of detritus that your code base has built up. They will not have to work around the areas of dark code that no engineer has dared to touch in the last decade. They will not be saddled with supporting functionality that no one even knows if anyone uses anymore. They will not be supporting some legacy operating system because just one of your customers cannot upgrade for very complicated reasons. And they will not be saddled with all those historical hopes and aspirations that your customers and employees have about your products.

This is an Exocet of a product. It is below your radar. You cannot anticipate it because you are expecting something entirely different. When it hits, you won’t know what’s happened. You certainly won’t understand where it came from. The first you will know is that the boat is going down and your customers are abandoning ship in droves.

It is true most start-ups fail. Most innovations don’t make the grade. But they’ve got almost nothing to lose, so they can take the risk.

The older a company gets and the older its products gets the narrower their definition of innovation becomes. It becomes all about little biddy features that can be bolted on the side without the whole rickety tower coming tumbling down. The sad thing is that horizons become so limited that the organisation, and many of the people within it, cannot imagine anything outside the offering they have worked with for so long.

Believe in innovation? Well, it is time to put your money where your mouth is.

It is time to start considering some radical steps to become truly innovative. Make a very senior appointment to champion it. Create a team which is focussed on it and has absolutely no responsibilities to the old offerings. Limit their choices, even if only temporarily, as this drives creativity. Do not be fooled into thinking you can enter a new market with a new product built on new technology; you cannot do all three at once. Challenge them with presenting often to the senior team and be prepared to change their mandate frequently as they uncover both fertile and stony ground.

Do it. Do it now, because that whistling sound could well be just the wind, or it could be an incoming Exocet.