Apple’s Most Obvious Secret: Reducing Time-to-Value

by Christopher Meyer on 10/11/2010

clockApple’s success comes from how effectively they’ve accelerated time-to-value; not time-to-market.

After less than eighty days on the market, Apple’s iPad sold three million units.  In contrast, Apple began tablet research before they began iPhone development.  That would imply the iPad’s time-to-market is well over four years.

Apple has consistently reduced their time-to-value.  It took the iPod 17 quarters to reach 30 million units. The iPhone did it in 10.  Current forecasts suggest iPad growth will be better still.

Apple has grown to a $60B company with just four product lines.  When Mark Parker became CEO of Nike, he got a call from Steve Jobs and asked if Jobs had any advice.  Jobs response:

“Well, just one thing.  Nike makes some of the best products in the world.  Products that you lust after.  Absolutely beautiful, stunning products.  But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”

Understanding Time-to-Value

Time-to-value is the time from when an effort starts until it achieves sales and market share goals.  Time-to-market is measured from the time a concept gains critical mass within the product development pipeline (e.g. moves from R&D to assembling a development team, having a budget, code name, etc.) to when it’s released to the market.

Being first-to-market counts when there’s substantial value.  Despite its high price, Dyson established themselves as the premier vacuum cleaner manufacturer by successfully introduced the first bag-less vacuum cleaner.  Toyota’s Prius created a winning value proposition by artfully combining the advantages of gas and electric vehicles.  On the other hand, Apple’s Newton was the one of the first serious handwriting recognition platforms but its performance failed to convince users.

Leading in time-to-value requires a distinct increase in value over incumbents.  Apple’s iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player but it was the first one that could store your entire library and buy/load new music easily and legally.  Practically speaking, what makes a killer product is one that blows away customers’ value expectations.  This does more than drive revenue: it establishes a presence that opens future opportunities.

Improving time-to-value starts with resetting assumptions about how speed works in business.  Dashing from one meeting, or market, to another rarely wins.  Multi-tasking has some value but Stanford research shows it also has major inefficiencies.  As lead researcher Clifford Nass describes, multi-taskers are “… suckers for irrelevancy.  Everything distracts them.”

Pushing people can instill a sense of urgency but without logic and clear competitive rationale, it’s just pressure.  At a minimum, pressure invites mistakes, burn out, and wastes money.  The natural urge to keep “things moving forward” contributes little if you don’t know and differentiate the highest value opportunities.

Six Keys to Accelerate Time-to-Value

  1. Focus on what to stop doing: Designers who strive for elegant simplicity know they’re finished when there’s nothing left to take out rather than when they’ve run out of features to put in. What can you take off the table of your job and business?  Don’t expect this to be easy — people don’t add tasks or products for the fun of it.  Everything in a play has incremental logic but it may not be current, compelling or contribute enough.
  2. Define the Sweet Spot: Any athlete who’s used a bat, club or racquet intuitively understands what the sweet spot is.  Anything hit outside the sweet spot takes more effort and is less accurate.  Markets, relationships and people each have their own sweet spots.  This is where you get a leveraged return for your efforts.  If you don’t know where the sweet spot is, you can’t be smart taking items off the table.  For example, Apple’s sweet spot is making computing elegant and easy.  If they can’t do that, leave it to someone else.
  3. View the Playing Field in Aggregate: Since every market, project and task has its own internal logic, you’ve got to constantly compare opportunity, investment, risk and value relative to each other.  Treat what’s in play as a portfolio.  Choosing to invest in one item means that you’re choosing not to invest in another.  For example, Apple stayed out of the PDA business which freed time to explore music, retail, portability, etc.
  4. Surface & Test Assumptions with Evidence: Scholars such as Harvard’s Chris Argyris and Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer have demonstrated that conversations and critical business decisions quickly bolt up a ladder of abstraction away from actual data to assumptions and conjecture.  Don’t mistake evidence for volumes of data:  evidence is the best data available.  Evidence includes subjective and objective elements.  For example, one can’t objectively measure Apple’s minimalist design qualities though they are central to their success.
  5. Connect With User Experience: In unique contrast to best practices advocated by universities and experts, Apple relies exclusively on its own design intuition.  Overall, it’s been a stunning success but don’t kid yourself into thinking you can clone it.  That stew is a complex blend of Job’s personality, Jonathan Ivy’s design sense and decades of interactions across the company.  Start by stealing the most obvious element of the Apple experience: complexity kills user experience.  At Apple, everyone knows that without incredible design thinking, increased functionality requires increased complexity.
  6. Keep It Messy: Organizations love routines and managers thrive on control.  Put the two together and you’ve got a flywheel that thrives on internally focused consistency. This is designed to filter distraction, disruption or other unsettling data.  The best leaders I know pay attention to what’s not being said and incidents that don’t naturally attract attention.  It’s summarized in the Sherlock Holmes mystery Silver Blaze where a horse was stolen at night while a watch dog was on duty.

Scotland Yard Detective: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Scotland Yard Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

Holmes concludes the dog must have known the thief.

Technology Won’t Help Much

At a recent gathering, I listened as my neighbor and noted computer scientist Bill Atkinson pointed out that computing power continues to increase geometrically yet our DNA is evolves very slowly.  All the issues I’ve raised here can be better informed with technology but none will be decided by it.

What enables Apple to reduce time-to-value starts with Steve Job’s unsettling passion for answers that don’t settle for value as we’ve know it.  But it’s much more than just the uniqueness of Steve Jobs.  You can see it in your company today.  There are voices that don’t want to settle but are pressured, nudged and reminded about what the competitor is about to introduce or what the customer said yesterday.

Take a breath, look at what’s on the plate and ask:

  1. What needs to thrive?
  2. What needs to come off to enable that?
  3. How will I hang tough when the “buts” come?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

David April 16, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I wonder in the case of Apple if their product ideas are in the hopper for a while before they decide to focus on a winner? I’ve read (can’t verify), the Steve Jobs himself really drives product development himself, and that he doesn’t conduct a lot of focus groups, etc. Instead, he thinks deeply about what the customer experience could be like and then painstakingly designs a product to that vision – with a focus on simplicity, immediate utility, and excitement.

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Christopher Meyer April 16, 2011 at 6:10 pm

You have it generally correct according to my Apple friends. Jobs’ taste, drive and intensity are an impressive combination. What’s even more impressive is his restraint on bringing forth new products until they’re ready.

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