Sunday, June 10, 2007

Do Less, Win More: True for More than Software

One of America's most interesting companies, 37Signals, has a terrific online book that explains their philosophy and also teaches software developers how to beat the competition. Get Real can be purchased for convenience, but the whole book can be read online. Generous!

The wisdom in Get Real is closely tied to the theories of disruptive innovation from Clayton Christensen and others. Consider this advice from Chapter 2:
Underdo your competition

Conventional wisdom says that to beat your competitors you need to one-up them. If they have four features, you need five (or 15, or 25). If they're spending x, you need to spend xx. If they have 20, you need 30.

This sort of one-upping Cold War mentality is a dead-end. It's an expensive, defensive, and paranoid way of building products. Defensive, paranoid companies can't think ahead, they can only think behind. They don't lead, they follow.

If you want to build a company that follows, you might as well put down this book now.

So what to do then? The answer is less. Do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to everyone else. Instead of oneupping, try one-downing. Instead of outdoing, try underdoing.

We'll cover the concept of less throughout this book, but for starters, less means:

* Less features
* Less options/preferences
* Less people and corporate structure
* Less meetings and abstractions
* Less promises
Yes! This makes so much sense to me. I'm sick of bloated software that continually adds more features, more bugs, more slowness and inconvenience, while still not getting even the simplest things right. But the largest corporations seem committed to fueling this trend - because the people who make the corporate decisions do it based on what brings them job security, not what an individual user really needs. Buying the biggest, most-feature laden package that "everyone else" is using seems like a safe move, even though the actual users may scream about all the time they lose trying to navigate a user-hostile interface.

The essence of disruptive innovation theory is focusing on the real job that users are trying to get done, and then finding a better, more convenience, or less costly way to do that job. The software of the future will be focused on getting that job done and making life easier for the users, not more lucrative for the trainers who now can conduct week-long seminars on MegaPackage Basics and still leave users unskilled and in need of further training.

And the message is about more than software. Electronics, tools, cars, utilities - sometimes we need to not engage in hopeless feature wars, and rather just focus on what consumers are really trying to do. Simplify. Do less. But offer more in untouched areas: simplicity, ease, convenience. Master than, and you will dominate your niche.

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