Monday, September 22, 2008

Analogy #210: Inside the Superhighway

There’s a beltway which surrounds the Washington, DC area. Inside the beltway, pretty much everything centers on the bizarre world of national politics. Outside the beltway is the rest of the country. The mindset outside the beltway is very different from inside the beltway.

There is an old saying about politics in the US. If a politician spends too much time inside the beltway, he or she will totally lose touch with the reality of what is happening outside the beltway. They are blinded by the artificial atmosphere of Washington and mistakenly believe it to be “normal.”

Ironically, this means that the longer a politician serves his/her constituents, the less qualified they are to do so, because they become increasingly unable to relate to them.

Washington DC is not the only place where a person can lose touch with the real world. The CEO’s office can be very similar. I remember talking to a CEO in his office one time, trying to explain to him the reality of what it was really happening in the company. He turned to me and said, “You know, I’m so isolated here. It’s hard for me to know what is the truth and what are lies.”

Other places in business can also feel like “inside the beltway.” Unfortunately, that can include the people who are working on your corporate strategy. Strategists often spend a lot of time trying to look into the future. As a result, they tend to hang out with people on the fringe—supposedly the leading edge of what is to come.

Although fringe people may give a glimpse into a possible version of the future, it is important to remember that they do not represent anything anywhere near normal. If you spend too much time with them, you will start to think this is the new normal. This will make you as irrelevant to today’s marketplace as lifelong politicians who never get outside the beltway.

The principle here is that the internet superhighway can create as much of a delusion barrier as the Washington, DC beltway. For people who spend too much time on the internet superhighway—sampling the leading edge of technology—there can grow a false notion that “everyone else” is also out on the edge of technology. This is simply not true.

I’ve recently read about a number of surveys and commentaries regarding technology. Here are a sampling of the findings:

1) A huge percentage of the population wishes their cell phones had a lot fewer features. They just want to make phone calls.

2) In spite of all the hype, very few people actually do much multi-tasking—using multiple media at the same time.

3) Most people never use all of the whiz-bang added features of their technology/software. All it does is add unnecessary complexity/confusion, slow down processing time, and increase costs.

4) There are still millions of people who do not own an iPod.

The point is that if you believe all the technology hype, you will have a distorted view of reality. The world is not as far down that technology superhighway as the leading edge experts would have us believe. Business models and strategies built upon this distortion will certainly disappoint.

Yes, strategists need to have one eye on the future to see what is “possible.” However, they also need one eye on today to see what is “practical.”

Don’t assume that just because something is technologically possible that it is a viable business model. There are lots of people playing with technology that may never become monetized. Just because something is cool does not mean that people will pay anything for it.

Here are a couple of simple rules to live by to help from falling into this trap.

1) Rather than focusing on the technology and all the cool features, focus on the benefits. People want their lives to be easier and more fulfilling. If something does that, there will be demand, no matter how much or how little technology is in it.

The microwave oven is hugely popular because it is incredibly easy to use and provides the great benefit of shortening meal preparation—something a great many time-starved people want. It has nothing to do with the technology itself.

2) Spend some time with the masses. Experience “normal” lifestyles. Don’t assume your lifestyle is normal. Just spending a little time with your own family won’t cut it. I would assume that most of the people reading this blog are wealthier, more highly educated, better read, and more sophisticated than the average person. To experience “normal” you may need to get outside your comfort zone and hang out with people you would not normally interact with.

It is easy for business people to become isolated from the “real” world. This isolation can cause one to make decisions which are out of touch with reality. One of those areas has to do with technology.

Don’t let the “coolness” of the latest technology blind you into thinking that everyone is immediately ready to spend tons of money on it. As the technology busts of the past have shown, not all cool technology leads to a promising business model.

One time I was visiting the offices of a leading dotcom commerce site. There was one part of the offices where the employees seemed to have all of the latest technological toys. They had the most expensive computers, with gigantic plasma screens. Their internet connections were the fastest available.

I asked what the jobs were of the people who had all that cool stuff. I was told that these were the people who tested the web site. Their job was to see that the web site worked as desired.

I started thinking about that. Now, the average customer using the site is going to have a cheaper, slower computer. They are going to have a much smaller screen. And most will have a slower internet connection. In other words, the average consumer experience will be completely different from what the site testers were using. The abnormal experience in the headquarters will provide virtually no insight into how the site is working for the typical customer.

By contrast, I know someone who used to create radio ads. He would play back the ads on a tiny, tinny-sounding speaker. Why? Because at the time, most of the radio speakers used by the typical customer were tiny and tinny. He wanted to hear the ads on the same type of speakers as the audience was using.

Stay relevant to the customer.

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