The Rhythm Method of Product Iteration

Of course, Steve Jobs left us a lot of incredible lessons.  Unfortunately, some of the really key ones, like “Be a genius”, can be tough to execute (I’ve been trying for years).  But one crucial one that you can implement might be called the “Rhythm Method”: imparting a well-known beat to your product and service upgrades.

Possibly the most shopworn piece of advice entrepreneurs hear these days is that constant iteration is the key to success.  But that misstates the case.  Undisciplined change can sow chaos among your staff, and even worse, your customers.  Netflix’s botched series of price, service, and brand name changes are just the latest example of what happens when you move too quickly.By comparison, think about Apple.  It’s the king of innovation, but everything seems to happen as part of an orchestrated and patient master plan, not as a rushed response to, say, Android’s latest feature.  A similar culture of rhythmic change should be part of your corporate DNA for many reasons:

1.  It instills confidence in your team.  Many startups feel that they must instantly match any new feature offered by a competitor, but that sort of attitude belies a fearful approach, a damning psychology easily communicated throughout the office.  A baseball team doesn’t panic when the opponent scores in the top of the third, because they know their turn is coming up soon enough.  That’s how you want everyone in your company to react to a rival’s latest advance.

2. It instills confidence in your customers.  Nobody with an iPhone is worried that a valuable Android feature won’t show up in the next iOS or hardware update …. and they also know that update will come on a predictable timeline. They’re relaxed. Your customers should feel the same way.

3. It reinforces processes.  Obviously, a frantic reaction to someone else’s move will damage the way your biz dev, sales, product managers, engineers, PR people, and strategy teams interrelate. And that’s hard enough to get right already!  Enforcing timing to change cycles, on the other hand, itself improves and reinforces those critical processes.

4. It builds excitement. Nothing was more amazing than watching the press—and Apple customers– work themselves into a frenzy over what might be announced at the next MacWorld.  Obviously, a random, helter-skelter upgrade pattern could never have produced the same kind of rabid anticipation.

5. It cuts down on mistakes.  Guess what? A lot of your competitor’s moves are boneheaded.  Of course, especially when a big company announces a new direction, it feels scary, and the urge is to instantly react.  Big companies and small companies alike make lots of major mistakes, and rushing to follow their every move increases your odds of doing the same.

A sense of urgency is a crucial attribute for any entrepreneur.  Adding a layer of discipline to it will greatly increase your chances of success.

Bob Rice , Managing Partner, Tangent Capital
October 14th, 2011