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Sometimes the Past Should be Left in the Past

What if I told you that you have to be disruptive to grow? That any other approach will ultimately leave your product line limping at the end of the pack. For an example of this, you need not look any further than Kodak who, invented the market disrupting digital camera in 1976 and put it on the shelf. Instead of leading the market, they continued to invest in their time-honored film business. It took time for them to lose their well-established lead, but in 2012 they filed bankruptcy primarily due to the impact of the rise in adoption of digital technology. Disruption is scary and, for an established organization, that means facing the very real fear of impacting and possibly displacing current customers. As Clay Christensen explains is his book The Innovator’s Solution, “current customers are the lifeblood of the company, they must be protected at all costs”.

So how can you be disruptive without alienating your existing base of loyal users? When replacing a legacy platform or establishing a new product that will intermingle with the old, a common line of exploration and discovery is around established processes and compatibility with existing systems. While spending countless hours thinking about how to connect to the past, we can be missing an opportunity for significant growth.

Often, product development starts with at least one “has to” statement. Example: The super cool new innovative product has to work with the billing system developed in 1975. Okay, that may be a bit extreme, but the perceived baby in the bathwater may have grown up and moved out of the house. Make sure to allow for the opportunity to think through all the possibilities. What would be lost by moving forward without backward compatibility/integration with legacy systems? What could be gained? What is the annual maintenance cost of keeping those antiquated systems running? The value of being able to connect with the past may not be what it seems.

Instead of asking about current functionality, ask about the ideal. Processes are often bred from the inflexibility of established systems. By asking about the ideal, clarity will be gained around opportunities to improve. Ask questions like, if you were starting with a clean slate how would you…? More importantly, don’t accept feedback independent from everything else you know.

Observe at least as much as you listen. Watch your customer navigate through processes and systems to note things that cause extra work or frustration. They may have been using a system for so long they are blind to some of the opportunities for improvement. Also, take advantage of listening to other perspectives. Can you talk to sales people or customer service representatives about complaints and compliments they’ve heard and ideas they have?

Plan for change. Design with the intent to be more agile in response to market changes. Are you tied to a certain file format or information from another software product? Standards have and will continue to change. Are there opportunities to become more flexible to that change?

Shift your focus to the mountain and away from the trees. Develop a clear product vision statement and primary personas and revisit them daily if you have to. Getting too caught up in the details of how things must work may stop you from seeing potential. Step back and keep your focus on the bigger vision.

Pick a path and stick to it. Innovation requires risk and can be scary before success is accessible. After you have done your research, pick your path and move forward on it. Don’t be afraid to get people using your product even before it’s polished. Leverage your advocates. A Beta release will help you connect with your customers and make them feel valued to be able to give feedback. This might mean learning that a feature you thought wasn’t needed should be added, but getting your product in the hands of your user is the best way to get actionable feedback.

Recognize, value, and learn from your history, but don’t let it hold you back. Advocate for disruption by cutting tethers and allowing for significant product advancement.

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