Steve Jobs is a great outside the box thinker. In Can Creativity be Taught? I argued that the best way to teach outside the box thinking is through puzzles, games, and simulations. Here’s a puzzle designed to do just that. Good luck! Imagine for a moment that it is your job to convince me to buy Microsoft Word as my word processing program. What would you tell me was the single most important feature of Microsoft Word? Please stop and ponder this question for a minute before moving on.
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Back in the 1990s I was invited to address one of Microsoft’s product teams. I asked them for the most important feature of their own product, and though it was not the Word team, for our purpose let’s pretend that it was. The answers I initially received were things like spell check. Though these answers were not wrong, I told them that I was looking for more compelling reasons for going with Word. After some head scratching someone shouted, “Ubiquity and interconnectivity!” This was a far bigger box and a far better answer. People don’t use Microsoft Word for the features they get in that little box called a screen. They use it because, since everyone else uses it, they can share documents and files. They use it because manufacturers ship Word with computers. They use it because it is integrated into a bigger box called Microsoft Office. But I kept pushing the team for an even bigger answer and even bigger box. When it was clear that they were stumped, rather than risk embarrassing them further, I said, “The Microsoft label on the box. Your most important feature is your brand.” After my talk the vice president approached me and said: “You’re absolutely right. If you only consider the typical feature set, I have maybe the third best product on the market, but all the other value we add has produced an 85% share.” But as important as a dominant brand may be, I later decided that I was wrong in identifying “brand” as the biggest box. If you are trying to convince anyone to buy anything the most important feature is what the customer wants. It doesn’t matter what you or I think. What matters is what the customer thinks. This insight led me in turn to the biggest box of all: If we want success in business we must stop assuming and start asking questions. For example, every riddle relies on ambiguity. This Microsoft Word riddle relies on assuming that the word “feature” means only tangible things like spell check. Once we question our assumptions about what a “feature” really is, the walls of the box disappear and the bigger box answers almost magically appear. Whether it is a struggling salesman, a struggling product, or a struggling company, the single biggest reason why they fail is that they are so busy assuming that they never get around to asking. We all like to think we are customer focused. But at the risk of hurting your feelings, unless you came up with “The most important feature of Microsoft Word depends on what you are trying to accomplish. And to know that I would need to be able to ask you a few questions,” you are not as customer focused as you might think…
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In Can Creativity be Taught?, I argued that companies like Word Perfect, Netscape, and Lotus are no longer with us because while they were narrowly focusing on adding spell check-like features to stand alone products, Microsoft was eating their lunch emphasizing ubiquity and integration through Microsoft Office. While they were stuck in a tiny, shrink wrap box, Microsoft had left that box far behind. I’ve given this Microsoft Word puzzle to hundreds of executives and marketing professionals. Perhaps 5% get outside the spell check box and mention ubiquity and/or integration. Three have mentioned Microsoft’s brand, and only one has said, “it all depends on what you want to do with it.” And though I repeatedly remind audiences that the “real” answer to all the business based riddles I use to demonstrate the importance of outside the box thinking is “asking questions,” by the end of the seminar the question asking needle has barely budged. Consistently coming up with successful products usually requires an utter value shift in thinking from what I call “bottom up” to “top down.” Step one in a top down process is asking a lot of questions. Step two is using the answers to determine what the customer wants. Step three is to build a brand around your customer’s needs. Step four is making sure that your product or service, as Microsoft did with Office, capitalizes on open system opportunities like interconnectivity. (Note that interconnectivity is not just applicable to technology. Campbell Soup’s Soup and Sandwich campaign connected soup to sandwiches in order to sell only the soup, and interconnecting movies, toys, and fast food has made billions for all three industries.) Step five is making sure that the smallest box containing all the spell check-like product specific “features” is built around the prior four steps. Of course I am overemphasizing this top down model to make my point. The arrows point both ways and all five levels must be worked simultaneously. I'm also not suggesting that we merely react to what customers SAY they want through surveys and focus groups. Asking questions means asking enough questions, the right questions, and in the right way until, like Steve Jobs, we know our customers better than they know themselves. Steve Jobs consistently seizes the initiative by anticipating his customer’s wants and needs long before they can be verbally articulated. Jobs may pay short shrift to surveys and focus groups, but he asks one hell of a lot of questions. And this is why Jobs is perhaps the best example of an outside the box leader we have in business today.