Friday, June 25, 2010

Up to Scale: Does your product or business stand a chance?

by Jean Brittingham

I keep running into articles about how important it is that innovation be scalable. I just want to say, “duh.” It really seems too obvious to write about. And yet, too often it is overlooked in the thrill of innovation—and maybe even more so in young entrepreneurial organizations. Worse yet, there hasn't been a lot written about how to test in advance if your "baby" will scale. 
Even in large seemingly capable corporations and organizations I have seen enthusiasm for an idea generated by a charismatic leader with a devoted team completely over ride the signals that they are getting that at least one critical ingredient for scalability is missing. 
So what does it take? There are five determinates to scalability. You can apply tests for each of these at any time in the design and development process, and entrepreneurs should certainly inform their design, test, re-design process around some tool to help assess scalability attributes as the idea evolves. As I use to tell young engineers and designers when I lectured to college seniors, "out in the world—it doesn’t matter how perfectly engineered your solution may be. If people don’t like it, it won’t get built!"
When combined, the characteristics of a product that are easily scaled are a measure of convenience. Humans are generally very practical. We like new things but we like the new things to integrate easily into our lives.
If you use this scale, you don't need a perfect score on all determinates, but you best not have a low score on more than three. And, I probably don’t have to state the obvious, but you should not be the only one scoring your product*, invention, business idea, project or breakthrough organizational turn-around. Ask as many others to understand, use, and score your idea as you can get to sit still for it. (*note: when I say “product” from now on it means all of the above)

In my experience, here’s the simplest most direct way to go about this process. 
Define each of the characteristics in the graphic below for your product, service, change initiative, etc.. For example, what does it mean for your product to be accessible.

Ask your customers, team members, boss, champions, and other stakeholders to rate your product against the definition. If you have a known skeptic, for sure ask her to rate your product. It will skew the score probably but if they take the test seriously it will give you valuable information about design shifts you might need to make. 
If they don’t like the definition after they have tried your product on for size, let them offer a new one. 
Gather all the scores, create a composite and give yourself a very hard look. 
You will have specific information about how to redesign, shift and improve. You may even find that you are ready to go—launch away. If the scores actually feel discouraging, you should assign someone from your team to go back and do some one-on-one interviews. You will need detailed information to understand why what you thought was great didn’t make the cut for convenience.

Let’s run through my scores for the iPhone (no not even the new one, I haven't upgraded yet—the lines are inconvenient!).

Accessible – I give it a 5 as a tool and a 3 as a phone. I don’t really like to use a headset with wires, have worries about wireless headsets, and it’s not a comfortable phone to hold to my head. It does have a good speakerphone and lets me do some things while I’m on the phone. It nets out at a 4.

Affordable – It’s an expensive phone, but we all know it’s much more than a phone. If there is one great frustration it’s the lack of flexibility in the plan. AT&T—not as happy with them as I am my phone. Still, generally for all I do on it, it’s pretty affordable. I’ll give it a 4.

Reliable – No doubt. I’ve gotten “unlost,” found the best local pizza, managed friend meet-ups and entertained myself on planes for hours. A solid 5.

Secure – This is an interesting attribute measure. Think of it this way-- does it make me feel safe and happy? This single convenience attribute is why organizational change initiatives often don’t get off to a ripping-good start. They don’t make people feel very safe—unless there is a great leader at the top communicating constantly about the benefits at the end of the pain. For my iPhone, I do feel safer when I have it with me. I also do worry about someone knowing everything about me (I know, I know) if I lose it. It’s a 4.

Interesting – This is where the iPhone shines. It is fun, intuitive to use, and there is new stuff for it all the time. Of course it’s a 5. I'd give it a 10 if I could.

Overall: 4.4 This thing should scale!!
Lower scores are acceptable when you are introducing a brand new technology or making a dramatic shift in culture or business model. Scores may be low because of resistance to change—but don’t assume this is true. You need to engage people and be open to improving your product to really understand barriers.

Feedback of this type will help you determine if your idea will scale easily and smoothly or if you are in for a crazy hard climb!

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