Disproved: Successful new products are launched exactly the way they are envisioned

Icarus and his father Daedalus, the architect of the Labirynth, attempt to escape by air from Crete. Daedalus had become a political refugee. He had helped Theseus, an enemy, break into the Labirynth to kill the Minotaur.

Icarus falls, assuming the plan so good he doesn't need to watch himself implement it

Daedalus then constructed wings from feathers and wax. Icarus' father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris. Daedalus asked that Icarus fly neither too low nor too high. The sea's dampness could clog his wings. The sun's heat could melt the wax. Icarus ultimately ignored his father's latter instruction. He flew too close to the sun. When the wax melted, Icarus tumbled out of the sky, fell into the sea, and drowned.

How is this relevant when launching new products?

Entrepreneurs have a strong sense of vision, particularly when creating something new and magical like the wings in the legend above. That's why we love them. Working alone or as a small team, they execute. They see something no one else does, and they pursue it relentlessly, until it happens. In one form or another.

He dreamed  about a stargazing and slowly getting there.
Photographer: Rahul Bhosale | Source: Unsplash

Conversely, corporate innovators often have to plan a lot up front, to align across multiple departments and stakeholders. Which means that detailed planning results from significant negotiations. And that any change often requires re-negotiation. But there is a great deal of vision and planning required to create something out of nothing.

These two scenarios have more in common with one another. Vision and planning is crucial, but having too much of an attachment to any plan is counterproductive.

Believing too much in the initial plan is clingy (and can feel unproductive)

For years, I was curious about whether there was any data to back that up. If you want to create a successful product, usually you want high growth as an ultimate metric of success. Recently, I found that data point.

In The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, professor Amar Bhide of Harvard interviewed the founders of an entire year's-worth of Inc 500 companies in the late 1980s, a ranking of high growth startups. This is independent of sectors and also not influenced by any of the more recent lean startup/small batch thinking. At the time, most startups needed to raise a significant amount of money to launch anything new. From a funding & risk perspective, the success criteria were close to that of corporate product development today.

Bhide reported that approximately 2/3 of the founders he spoke to pivoted away from their original concept:

More than one third of the Inc 500 founders we interviewed significantly altered their initial concepts, and another third reported moderate changes.

The majority of the founders shifted away from their original vision. Was it out of necessity? Or is being both willing and able to adapt is actually a requirement for new product success. One third of the founders were lucky to have guessed exactly what their customers wanted. But most needed to adapt and pivot to the best possible business model.

Plans are worthless but planning is everything –Eisenhower

In other words, the most helpful mindset & approach is to:

  1. assume that you will be wrong about something when launching a new product
  2. make sure you have the option to pivot
  3. often, this happens once you collect data that challenges your assumptions…so collect data first!

This is how innovators work. This is also how "search" for a new business model differs from executing a known business model and aiming for efficiencies only.

This post is part of my "7 Lies of Innovation" email course. Click here to sign up if you'd like to know when the common wisdom around innovation doesn't actually hold up in the data.

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