High Margins – the Identification Problem

Steve Jobs used the phrase “insanely great” to describe the goal he aspired to in product design. He wanted to make stuff that was “insanely great”.  And in his famous speech at Stanford, he said that he was able to do this because he did what he loved.

Well, a clarification is in order. In fact, Jobs did not know how to code. And indications are that as a young man, he had no huge love for technology. What he loved to do, and did very well was to get other people engaged in stuff.

In other words, it was in his DNA that the stuff he sold had to be great for the user (not for Steve Jobs alone). And he was relentless in improving designs so that they “just worked”. So that they were stripped of all confusing and non-functional components. This was his formula for producing things that sell for “high margins”. And it has worked out pretty damn well.

In this thread, we are on an adventure to better understand this thought process so that we can do the same thing. Not by making gadgets the way Jobs did, but in everything that we do in our lives. We want our lives to offer us lots of “high margin” opportunities. And we know already that it is not as easy as just “following our bliss”. To produce things that have high value to others, we need tools to get into their heads and hearts. We need the DNA that Jobs had in spades.

Before getting into this, we should be sure we understand a necessary skill set – that relates to our ability to “focus”. Focus is one of those words that in the old days, meant a technical thing. Sight was in focus or out of focus. Peter Drucker was instrumental in giving the word a different usage. He wrote back in the 1960’s that mastering focus was essential to becoming an effective executive. And he introduced the idea that focus is the ability to say “no” to lots of good stuff because it distracts you from important stuff. He makes the point rather well here (from an interview with Forbes)

I’ve seen a great many people who are exceedingly good at execution, but exceedingly poor at picking the important things. They are magnificent at getting the unimportant things done. They have an impressive record of achievement on trivial matters.

These days, you see lots of people using this idea. For example, productivity experts exhort us to avoid getting overwhelmed by “urgent” stuff to the point that we lose focus of “important” stuff. In other words, we should strive to reduce the amount of urgency (say no to it when possible) so that we can focus on what is important.

Steve Jobs made this point as well in his famous talk to Apple stuff. When he came back to Apple, he killed lots of perfectly good projects for the sole reason that they were not “insanely great” projects.  So far so good. We know that in order to develop “insanely great” stuff, we need focus.

And we know from the Heath Brothers (book – Decisive) we have to be really careful in choosing focus points. Why? Because once we focus, everything else falls outside of the spotlight. We narrow our options. So (1) it is a great idea to reduce the risk of getting the focus decision wrong and (2) it is another great idea to have “tripwires” that we can set off when data starts to show us that our focus is not working.

Great stuff! But … what are we looking for to make that focus decision? Dan Pink, in his book on how to persuade (“To Sell is Human”) starts with the notion that we should be “in tune” with out clients. If we are in tune with them, we will “feel their pain”.  And when we feel their pain, we might start thinking about how to convert that pain into pleasure.

There are some things we can say about this. The first thing is that the “pain” people feel comes out of what they do, not out of what they might like to do. The fact that I am not a billionaire does not give me daily pain. The fact that I have to take out the trash might. In other words, insanely great stuff – stuff that sells at high margins – relates to activities people can fit into their lives.  If it doesn’t fit in, they won’t see the value. So it was for the very clever new device called the “Segway“. It is a cool thing. But exactly what is it for? Who is it for? Ever since its invention, the Segway has been a device looking for a scalable use. This offers us a nice lesson. To find “high margins” we are better off moving from activity to innovation rather than technology to use.

And this was the genius of Andrew Carnegie. In each work area that he got involved in, he became a student of where the pain was. And he found ways to fix that.  Jeff Bezos offered a very interesting talk about this for TED where he calls what is wrong “kluge”. Jeff makes the point that most of the time we just accept kluge – we don’t actually see it as a problem. And this suggests that we can get a lot better at finding high margin products and services by getting more sensitive to kluge.

Fun idea! But how do we convert “pain” to “pleasure”? That is next! Stay tuned!



Creating Space

I am still thinking about how this platform should work. But one thing is clear. To generate better shared learning, we need a structure. So If you look at the top of the page, you see my first attempt at this. I have broken down the shared learning challenge into five activity areas and I will be writing about each one in turn.