To uncover the assumptions that could be blocking you from seeing the challenges and opportunities, here are two questions that are designed to help you discover the rules and assumptions under which your organization and industry operates. I want you to use them to start unraveling the assumptions you have about your business, your industry, and your own role in the marketplace.
The key here is to be able to get the assumptions that run around in everyone’s head out on paper. Only then can you shed the old constraints that held you back and look at new opportunities. By getting these assumptions out in the open, you have permission to challenge them in the context of new ideas.
In order to move beyond your assumptions about your industry, you need to first be able to identify them. This is harder than it seems; our assumptions are so ingrained in us that they appear less a personal belief and more of a universal truth. So, what are yours? What are the “rules” about how your industry is structured? How often do you reconsider what the rules are about what your customers like or don’t like, or what the rules are about how you operate?
While writing my book, I’ve started to think a lot about the assumptions that the publishing industry operates under. As I worked on Beyond the Obvious, I thought about all the possible ways we could make the book a unique experience for the reader. I hoped that in the near future books can begin to transform into a multidimensional experience. Perhaps publishers will be able to find new ways to publish books that will literally bring books like Beyond the Obvious to life and allow readers to communicate with authors, and one another, in a real-time way.
When I did my rounds of meetings with all the potential editors and publishers, I was asked again and again, “What are the killer questions we should be asking ourselves? How do we change our industry in the face of new media?” My reply was to ask the same basic questions I discussed with my publishing team for Beyond the Obvious. What is a book? What does the book of tomorrow look like? How are we going to deliver these books to our readers? How are we going to apply the lessons learned from the changes in the music industry?
The point is that publishers are experimenting with ways they can reshape what a book is, and how they sell it to readers. People clearly still want books, but they don’t want to buy them and read them in the same ways they used to. Simply transferring content over to e-books won’t satisfy readers for long.
I’m very curious to see how the fundamental manner in which a reader experiences and uses a book will change over the next few years. I also wonder whether books will continue to be sold as a fixed, final text. Think about it: With the exception of textbooks or reference books (or minor tweaks in subsequent editions of other types of books), we assume that books will stay the same once they are published. Yet this doesn’t reflect the way people consume and interact with information now. How will publishers evolve how they sell—beyond just saying “let’s go digital”—and create an evolving experience for the reader? Who says a book needs to remain fixed and static? Maybe the books of the future should be fluid and ever-evolving? If an author can revise their e-book after the publication date, why shouldn’t they?
It’s an interesting thought. I’m an innovation guy, yet here I am, working in a medium that is more than two thousand years old. I’d love it if Beyond the Obvious could become a focal point around which innovators, kids, business people, hobbyists, students, and civilians could debate, swap ideas, and spur one another on to be more creative and dig deeper. Perhaps one day readers will actually contribute to the book, enhancing its quality and adding to its value over the years. We’ll see.
- Why is your industry structured the way it is?
- What are the rules for how your industry interacts with customers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, etc.?
- What would be the effect on your business if these assumptions changed? Which of these assumptions could you change that would radically alter your position in the industry?
My dad worked his entire adult life at a company called Cincinnati Milacron. The company was founded in 1889 and started off as a little shop that made machine tools. Eventually they became the world’s largest manufacturer of machine tools.
In the 1970s the Japanese came in and began to build machines that looked almost identical to the machines that Milacron was famous for. The Japanese were gaining a reputation for duplicating what existing US businesses were doing, but offering a significantly cheaper version of their products. Now, this would be an alarming situation for any business, but the Mil’s management had confidence in the quality of their products. It had taken them a hundred years to refine and perfect what they built, and they were renowned for the features and functions of their machines. They felt certain that their new rivals would never be able to catch up and replicate their full feature set. And they were correct on that score; the Japanese versions of Milacron’s products never had the same capabilities. What the Mil failed to account for was something that the Japanese understood: their customers’ priorities had changed. The Mil thought their trump card was their quality workmanship and rich feature set. They believed that if customers had to pay a premium for the features, they would. They didn’t see that their customers were feeling pressed by cheap imports and the changing realities of the economy. Price was beginning to win in the battle between cost and features.
Fast-forward from 1970 to 1998. Cincinnati Milacron lost so much market share in the machine tool business that they sold off the machine tool division.
So. what went wrong? Cincinnati Milacron was a market leader. However, their sense of history and pride in their work and reputation worked against them. Their leadership assumed that they understood the rules of their industry and how a successful company operated. They knew who their customers were and what they wanted, and they weren’t going to waste time wondering if the Japanese had sensed a change in the marketplace that they themselves were ignoring. This certainty blinded them to the reality that their industry was indeed changing; their customers were feeling the pinch of cheap foreign-made products that needed lower-cost machines and couldn’t afford Milacron’s price premium.
- Why is your organization organized the way it is?
- What are the rules your organization operates under?
- Is the organization operating the same today as it did in the past?
- What are the assumptions about your customers, products, and how you operate?
In Summary …
The purpose of these two questions is to help you step out of your own biases and to identify the “safe” assumptions and rules your industry and organizations operates under. Without the ability to challenge assumptions, the success of any innovation effort will be severely limited.