Is Continuous Product Improvement a Dead-End Strategy?

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The purpose of and the possible purpose for the screwdriver

An affordance is simply a possible use of something. Some uses are common knowledge or immediately apparent, while others have yet to be explored. What’s interesting is how new affordances are uncovered, and it’s not via continuous improvement.

Companies often talk about their ecosystem — meaning their products and payment solutions. They prioritize the cohesion of this ecosystem. The shirt they offer must match the jacket. In this limited worldview, companies struggle to develop their products.

It feels safe to limit ourselves to our own businesses. We engineers are very happy to improve on existing knowledge. Unfortunately, we are then blinded to other realities. And even more, our new clever ideas will only be performance improvements of the products we already have.

Open Ecosystems Are More than Your Own Products

No matter where we set the boundaries for our ecosystem, there are other ecosystems around us. These ecosystems affect our ecosystem. For an ecologist, this relationship is obvious. There are no limits. The ecosystem is open. This complexity is one of the reasons we obtain different results, even though we try the same thing over and over again.

Interestingly, strange things happen far away, with our own concepts. They are repurposed, even outside our little shop. Think of the screwdriver, for example. It has been with us since the fifteenth century. But it found a new usage when oil workers began mixing vodka with orange juice. A sample of mold led to the discovery of penicillin. Alexander Fleming had forgotten to wash the mold before going on vacation. My favorite is still Archimedes. It wasn’t in the innovation sprint at the bathtub factory that he determined the relationship between the upward force and his body volume.

Repurpose Is Innovation

All of these are situations in which new parts of an affordance have been explored in known concepts. The full affordance is everything that the environment allows us to use a thing for. The major part is often unexplored, like the green in the picture above. For example, a screwdriver is great at mixing vodka and orange juice.

Peter Drucker called such innovation unexpected occurrences. And contrary to many people’s beliefs, this sort of adaptation is how evolution works in nature. The feathers that birds have long used to warm themselves with proved useful for flying. Flight actually started with beetles developing larger shields to catch more sun. As they fluttered their shields, the beetles lifted off the ground. The world’s first wings were invented.

We’ll never notice this kind of innovation with a linear improvement process, like Lean Startup or Double Diamond. We must be present when change happens; when our concepts are repurposed.

Learn from Ethnography and Pay Attention to Anomalies

Ethnographers know how to experience such changes. Ethnography is living in a culture we want to understand — being part of it. Encyclopædia Britannica describes the process as complete immersion. The customers, the competitors, the friends — the lawbreakers and the subcultures — all of those must be us. Those things shouldn’t be a black box that we study remotely.

If we succeed with this process, then we can listen to raw stories and we'll no longer have to decide up front what to look for. Above all, we can be sensitive to what stands out: anomalies.

We do want answers to questions we can’t even imagine up front. And we’ll find those only if we actively look for repurposed concepts outside our own shop — the unexpected occurrences.

Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf and most recently Monotasking with Simon & Schuster.

To save 35 percent on the ebook version of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, enter promo code innovation_2022 when you check out at The Pragmatic Bookshelf. The promo code is valid through March 31, 2022, and is not valid on prior purchases. You can also read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated on Medium.

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Staffan Nöteberg

Staffan Nöteberg

🌱 Twenty Years of Agile Coaching and Leadership • Monotasking and Pomodoro books (700.000 copies sold)