Try More Things

Sometimes focus is the wrong answer

I’ve been thinking lately about how you decide whether to optimize or innovate. Not that you can’t do both at the same time — it’s really a matter of degree. But it’s an important matter of degree.

In Steven Johnson’s, Where Good Ideas Come From, he describes the idea of the adjacent possible, a term coined to explain the process of invention/evolution, which is basically that ideas, technologies, and species unfold one step at a time. For example, to get to humans, you needed to have the flatworm. And to get the iPhone you need to pass through the invention of microprocessors, the internet, glass, etc. Johnson:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.

I map this metaphor to the technology startup world in the following way: In the beginning, you’re trying to discover a room in this infinitely expanding palace that you can own—each room being the intersection of a market, a job to be done, and an approach to solving that need. Each of these factors needs to be right for a room to be one of the few that are viable out of the endlessly possible.

Once you find the right idea/room, you need to build your product (which you might need to do to some extent to figure out if an idea is viable), get people to show up, and all the rest.

If you’re successful at that, you have achieved the highly sought after state known as product/market fit.

Then what? Add more rooms.

Though the difference between no product/market fit and some product/market fit is night and day, having “fit” is not exactly a binary thing. It’s multi-dimensional. You can have strong fit with a segment of your market and weaker fit with another. You can have strong fit for one particular use case and no fit for another. The more superior your product is for more jobs-to-be-done for more people, the stronger your “fit.”

There was a moment, for example, when Twitter found product/market fit for Justin Bieber fans (which was when he started tweeting) and another moment when it reached fit for companies looking for real-time market intelligence on their own and competitor’s products. Like any platform of size, there are tons of different market segments and use cases that constitute Twitter’s overall position — ideally they add value to each other. When we added search, for instance, in a sense, this was just a new feature. But it’s the type of feature that allowed expansion into adjacent rooms, because it didn’t just make the product better for what people were already using it for, it enabled whole new uses.

I think most new companies are too broad in their use cases or market segments or both when starting out. At the same time, many semi-successful ones stay too narrow. The former happens because a very specific market does not sound that exciting and founders want to paint a much bigger vision for themselves, employees, and investors—forgetting, perhaps, that Facebook was once a social network for Harvard students only and Amazon just sold books.

Companies stay too narrow for a few reasons: Sometimes it’s the only practical thing to do—executing on new ideas is hard and more expensive than making incremental improvements. It’s also slower. So you actually need a culture that tolerates not just failure but the process of exploration. This is especially hard in metrics-driven cultures, which most companies pride themselves on being these days.

For all these reasons, trying something new feels like a big deal. But there are ways to reduce the risk.

If you are going to expand, the key is to look for what’s uniquely adjacent and possible for you, based on the position you’ve developed. For example, how much easier was it for Amazon to launch the first successful ebook platform, given they were the number one seller of books online? (Just ask the other companies who tried to do so before them.)

There is such a thing as too much too soon, of course. And if you’re going to open a door, you need to be prepared to make a big enough investment to make it worthwhile — or else it’s likely an expensive distraction. Having said all that, on balance, the big wins come from big moves, not tweaking around the edges. So I think there’s real benefit to trying more, different, bigger things, rather than just tweaking.

After all, The real juggernauts are companies that keep opening doors, expanding from room to room, building as much interlinking value as possible, until they have an entire wing of the palace to themselves — and then they keep going.

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