Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why good enough is no longer good enough

I am re-reading Seth Godin's book, Purple Cow. The book is a plea for being remarkable and for having remarkable ideas. Seth's argument is that in a crowded market, only those companies that stand out will survive. It is no longer enough to copy someone else's remarkable idea. Playing safe is too risky.

One of the many insights for me in this terrific book is that the opposite of remarkable is "very good" or "good enough". Not "bad" or "mediocre" as you might expect.

I think most companies are pretty good at weeding out the bad and the mediocre ideas during development. Concept testing and prototyping help us do this at low cost. I wonder how many companies are as good at sorting out the good enough from the remarkable?

Here is a scenario you might recognize. You talk to customers and get some remarkable insights. You turn these into remarkable concepts and remarkable prototypes. The customer feedback is great, you realize you are testing things that no-one else has ever done before. Wow! Then comes the business case review and the CFO says: "great idea, I love it, but could you do it for less maybe?....I mean does it have to be so fantastic - good enough is good enough right?". This sounds very reasonable doesn't it? The kind of thing CFO's say all the time. Has it happened to you?

I suspect this is how remarkable ideas are dumbed down into good enough ideas, and why many of these ideas disappoint upon launch into the crowded marketplace of today. There are plenty of products competing for our customers' attention, why should they even look at something that is unremarkable?

Good enough is WORSE than bad or mediocre. We can recognize the bad or mediocre and we have learnt to kill it early. The problem is that good enough fools us into thinking we are on the right track. Good enough keeps us investing in something that will never excite our customers. Ever.

The secret I think is to keep the remarkable ideas alive during the development process. You have to understand what it is that is remarkable about the idea you are developing or the concept you are testing. When challenged to do it more cheaply, as inevitably you will be, you have to work out how to keep that remarkable part alive. If that is not possible, it is better to stop than to proceed.

Here's two examples of what I mean:

Some years ago a couple of guys working at Mars thought it might be cool if you could print personalized messages on M&M's. Printing on tiny saucer-shaped, hard gum-covered chocolates without melting the chocolate or crushing the M&M and producing readable text proved to be technically very tricky. The easy thing to do, the good enough solution, would have been to personalize the packaging instead i.e. deliver M&M's in bags with your personalized message on the outside. Other companies do this. It's not that difficult. But no - the team at Mars stuck to their remarkable idea. It took them five years to figure out how to print on M&M's and how to do it in a cost-effective way. The result is My M&M's and an entirely new business unit: MarsDirect Inc. Today you can upload your own message and even photo's for printing onto M&M's. It is a huge success with around 2000 orders a day and many very happy customers. When you look at one of their printed M&M's you cannot fail to be impressed and ask yourself "how on earth do they do that?". It is remarkable. You can read more about it here.

ScienceDirect is another example. The original idea of providing desktop access to scientific, technical and medical articles was remarkable in 1993 when we first started experimenting with what would become Elsevier's web delivery system for scholarly information, ScienceDirect. This might seem strange to you now in today's world but remember that the world wide web didn't exist until Tim Berners-Lee proposed it in 1989 and only a handful of websites were live in 1993. Just as in the M&M example, the key problem to solve was the production. How could we take whatever format authors chose to send their articles to us in and turn it into something we could display online? And how to do it in a cost-effective way? Our computer-aided production process was the innovation that made this remarkable idea possible. There were many "good enough" moments in the 5 years it took to develop but the team stayed true to that original, remarkable idea of desktop access to articles.

As Seth Godin writes: "transform your business by being remarkable". Good enough is no longer good enough.

1 comment:

  1. Catherine Wilson, Elsevier, San DiegoJune 10, 2009 at 4:49 PM

    I enjoyed reading your post. I think this author nailed it on the head in terms of maintaining a competitive advantage in an ever-changing, increasingly global and competitive market. I have been reminded of this all too often as a an mba student with my work and my work at elsevier when dealing with our customers (ie: editors). Very good or even great does not cut it anymore. Excellent or Remarkable is what we have to be in everything we do, otherwise we are just another number waiting for a golden ticket.