A Decade Should Do the Trick
Sony has given us a new version of the Walkman every three weeks since the product was launched in 1979. If this week is average, we’ll harvest 250 or so new products aimed for American grocery and drugstore shelves. Speed, as I’ve said many times in this space, is critical to success. Old-fashioned hierarchies are not only unmercifully sluggish, but their committee-born products are also usually dull as doornails when they finally arrive.
But there’s more to life than speed. To wit, the case of Steve Chen. He left Cray Research five years ago to found Supercomputer Systems. With backing from IBM, he’s been quietly working away ever since. He surfaced in early June, only to announce that he didn’t know when his product would be ready—then he disappeared again.
Others who’ve taken their time: Horst Brandstatter turned sleepy Geobra into a fast-growing, $250 million (revenue) firm, thanks to its Playmobil line of toys. The German CEO gave master craftsman Hans Beck ten years to create something special! Then there’s a friend at CBS who talks admiringly about a former colleague who drove top management crazy. He’d get an idea for a documentary, she says, then take it to his bosses—who’d usually approve. He’d return to his office, sit quietly and mull. And mull. Days would pass. Weeks would pass. Often as not, months would pass. “When in the hell is he going to go out on the road and shoot?” the hierarchs wanted to know. One day his office would be empty, and a few weeks later he’d be back with canisters of film in hand. Did he start editing? Fat chance. Back to office. Feet up. Mull. Massive accumulations of pipe ash. Eventually, he’d head for the editing room, and a near perfect show would emerge. The sequence was repeated time and again, and the results were invariably so good that CBS’ muckety-mucks had little choice but to put up with his aberrant behavior.
George Leonard, author of the book Mastery, would smile at these stories. Mastery at filmmaking, tennis, toymaking, and personal relationships is possible for almost all of us, he says. But to get there we must eschew the normal American bias toward “bottom line” thinking. The path to mastery is predictable: (1) practice, practice; (2) a brief spurt of progress; (3) a slight decline in performance; then (4) achievement of a new plateau, usually somewhat higher than the plateau preceding it. And so on.
The problem, according to Leonard, is that most of us live for those spurts of progress and consider the plateaus a sort of “purgatory.” Yet the key to mastering anything is “loving the plateaus” (one of the book’s chapter titles). “How do you best move toward mastery?” Leonard writes. “You practice diligently for the sake of practice itself. … You learn to appreciate and enjoy (the plateaus) just as much as the upward surges.” Leonard honed his ideas learning aikido; he says he experienced little sustainable progress until he accepted the notion of making practice his bliss.
Leonard offers lots of practical advice, from the selection of an instructor to how to “surrender”—i.e., learning to accept certain “indignities.” (“Your first few dives are likely to be belly flops—and they’ll draw the attention of almost everyone at the pool. Are you willing to accept that? If not, forget diving.”) But mostly he counsels appreciation for the lost art of apprenticeship. Consider the master potter who took on a handful of students every couple of years. He’d demand that they devote the first three years of their tutelage to mixing clay—they wouldn’t be allowed near the potter’s wheel until a feel for material had become part of their marrow!
Yes, each week may bring 250 new grocery products. But the odds are that a couple at most will last even two years. How many will really be significant? Fewer still. Does that mean all Procter & Gamble product developers should spend five years peddling soap door to door to get a sense for the product? No. Ought P&G aim to extend its already lengthy product-development cycle in pursuit of breakthrough products? Hardly. Yet I would say P&G—and CBS and IBM—ought to have a few folks on the payroll who march to a different drummer. In a way, IBM’s longlasting, deep-pocket support for a Steve Chen amounts to such a strategy. Will such oddballs consistently hit home runs? Of course not. (Chen, for instance, has more than a few detractors.) But without a few Steve Chens or Hans Becks, who go to ground for five or ten years, the low odds of genuinely transformative products get far lower.
We’re beset by a paradox. The metabolism of commerce has speeded up dramatically, from information technology to spaghetti sauce (we were honored with 64 new varieties of the latter in 1991). On the other hand, the increased pace of everything makes genuine standouts all the more rare and valuable—which amounts to a case for pipe smokers who sit for eternities, musing on grandiose schemes.
A friend in a huge consultancy says his firm desperately needs a few big ideas, championed by highly visible advocates who amass global reputations. “The problem is that (top management) doesn’t understand it takes ten years to really establish a position of authority in any important field,” he recently told me. “We think a year is a long time, three years an eternity.” Once again, I can see George Leonard smiling.
(C) 1992 TPG Communications.
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