Friday, January 26, 2007

Moments of Transition

"The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain." Babylon 5.

The companies that produce computer software products are in a moment of transition. I’m not talking about the big products like Windows and Office and Photoshop, they are now a different thing. I’m talking about the newer stuff. The unnamed stuff. Although there is an incredible amount of activity all around us, we are all waiting for real answers. We are in a moment of transition.

I was always taught that just about any problem can be broken down into Who, What, When, Where, Why and sometimes How. But we are in such a great moment of transition right now; most of those questions do not matter any longer.

Easy ones first

When is now, it’s always now on the web.

Where doesn’t really matter. I need a link. It can be to anyplace.

What has consumed both How and Why

It used to be that if IBM made one product you liked, odds were that you would like their other products. But perhaps more importantly all IBM products would work together. And you could stand around at cocktail parties and say “I use IBM” and everybody around you would go “Oh, yes, quite right.”

But, the pace of innovation (technical & societal) has increased so quickly that companies are scrambling to get any kind of offering out there. The best of breed product might be from one of the big guys or by two college students working out of their dorm room. And that could change tomorrow. The big guys used to have the distribution channel to protect their markets, but those days are gone. Now chatting on MySpace about a particular product you use would probably bring as many comments of “That one Rocks” as “That one Sucks”.

Why do you produce this product? So many business models are in the air and a thousand other things are shaking out. Profit motive is always good and eventually necessary, but it’s not a good enough reason to dive into a moment of transition. There is one thing that still counts. Why do you produce your product? Passion. Customers will not accept a different answer. They need to feel like you are worth the time and effort they’ll take to deal with your product. That you are going to stick in there with them. That next week’s version will be better than this week’s had been. That you won’t turn tail but instead your company is going to stay on top of this moment of transition until it’s time to take a deep breath.

There are not a lot of variables over How to build it. Hire excellent people and treat them really well. Do lots of quick product cycles. Stay in an almost a perpetual beta. Take in as much end user feedback and content as is possible. Write to open standards where available and open your own standards to the public when you have to invent new ones.

And How to market is simplified. Your message is the message detailed by the What section. It is to use Web Pages, Blogs, Communities, Email, Web Casts, etc. that all talk about What your company is producing and, oh yes, how passionate about it everybody is. You can’t even dig down into features and cost benefit analyst because all that could change tomorrow.

So, right now, it all comes back to What. Anytime the only question that makes sense is “What the heck are we doing?” it is a sure sign we are in a moment of transition.

I’m not saying that things are easy or even as black and white as I’ve portrayed them above. And doing the exact opposite of everybody else but being really clever about it can work every time, too. No, the thing to take away from this is where to put your resources. During a moment of transition, transition the company. This is the time to try as many new and unique things as possible. Really let your employees soar and step out of anything that might be considered traditional for your company or market.

The moment of revelation is coming soon. This is the time when people are no longer interested in becoming something new, but instead want to figure out who they are. We will all want to simplify our lives, pick what really works and jettison the rest. Of the hundreds of things that were tried during the transition, a very few of them will become part of us, part of our future. When that moment of revelation comes; Nuance matters, Polish matters, Quality matters.

This moment is also a moment with great potential, and you will know when it is back because the five W’s will be back.

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