IS Guerrilla: I

I am. Really. If you’re of the mind that the columnist should know more about any subject he or she writes about than every reader every time, I’m here to disabuse you of that notion right now.

Sometimes, I think, I’m here just to start other people talking — to introduce both sides of an argument, and then stand back. This is just such a case.

So I’m reading Guy Kawasaki’s new book, Rules for Revolutionaries. Kawasaki (an original Macintosh development team member and former Apple chief evangelist) is always good for a technology anecdote or an addition to the geek speak vocabulary, as in, “Don’t succumb to the bozosity that man will never fly,” “Go ahead and ship that first release of software,” and “Don’t worry, be crappy.”

What I’m struggling with is Kawasaki’s argument that killer products, like the Mac, are by nature revolutionary (therefore good), and that everything else, like Windows, is at best evolutionary (not so good).

Arguments For: Kawasaki makes the compelling argument that market research is the enemy of revolutionary products, that we should “use our intuition to create a revolutionary product. People are notoriously poor at articulating anything besides improvements to the products they currently own. Market research is a pathetic catalyst for revolutionary products.”

It’s true that we wouldn’t have had the minivan today if its creator (Hal Sperlich, don’t ya know) hadn’t ignored Ford’s market research and created a revol…scratch that…I just can’t seem to put the words “minivan” and “revolutionary” in the same sentence.

How ’bout this one instead: We wouldn’t yet have seen the wide use of optical fibre (a revolutionary change from copper wire) if Corning hadn’t had the vision to start manufacturing it before there was any fibre optic market. You get the point.

As much as these words make sense to me, I’m troubled.

Arguments Against: God help us if we all take Kawasaki’s stories to heart and strike out strictly based on our own intuition, market research be damned, bent on creating that next revolutionary product that our customers would demand, if only they knew as much as we did.

I suspect that the worst revolutionaries would say that those who don’t agree with their vision (lumping them in with the caveman consumers who presumably would have snuffed the roll out, pardon the pun, of the wheel if it had been subject to market research) simply “don’t get it.”

On the other hand, those who “don’t get it” will point out that history is littered with the un-purchased progeny of inspired technology geniuses, geniuses who refused to listen to what market research was telling them. How many times, they’ll ask, have you seen a useless high-tech gizmo languishing in the discount bin and thought to yourself, “Whatever were they thinking?”

Even the few revolutionary products that do capture the imagination of a profitable market segment, they’ll argue, often fall under the onslaught of those who use market research to evolve from their competitor’s revolutionary beginning: Excel killed Lotus 1-2-3 much as 1-2-3 killed Multiplan, and although we all love the Mac, that evolutionary Wintel mob ultimately ate Apple’s lunch.

I’m death on those of us in the IT business who refuse to listen to our customers because they “just don’t get it.” Customers are, after all, the people who are, or hopefully will be, paying our freight.

But I also realize that it’s the true revolutionary who makes all the difference, who brings to market the must-have product we couldn’t even have conceived of before it hit the streets. The Internet was most certainly not created in response to market research.

So who’s right here? I suspect the answer starts with “It depends on…”

In any case, I’m sitting on the fence at the moment. For or against, what do you think?

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected]

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