It’s difficult to put my finger on why, but for some reason I’ve always been fascinated when conventional wisdom is challenged and better results ensue. There is something intriguing to me when we think we have something figured out and, in reality, the situation is very different or counter-intuitive. I think this is why open source business models have interested me so much.
The movie Concussion is playing in US theaters now. It chronicles the efforts of a pathologist in discovering a type of brain injury that occurs in (American) football players that previously was not understood; as well as the National Football League‘s efforts to ignore the problem. How the game arrived to where it is now seems pretty natural and rational: Head injuries occurred due to people running into each other, so helmets were introduced to protect the head. The injuries continued so helmet technology and game rules were modified. But the end result is the same: head injuries continue.
Dealing with this situation is continuing on expected paths – one of those being the development of improved helmet technology. But another method of resolution being pursued is a change in how the game is played: Taking off the helmets. It turns out when the helmet is removed players approach tackling very differently. Since they don’t have head protection they intuitively develop techniques to tackle that help protect the head. Removing the protection appears to be resulting in safer play.
Could closed source software businesses learn from this concept? Could removing the “protection” of selling proprietary products actually help companies to become better at other things – such as customer service? Or efficient business operations?
Heading Out For A Run? Take Off Your Shoes!
Upwards of 70% of runners report being injured in the previous 12 months. The running shoe industry, consistently and over many years, has responded by offering shoes with greater and greater amounts of technology and engineering. Specialty running stores frequently provide expertise to help the runner find a shoe that is designed for their type of foot…all in an effort to reduce running injuries. Not only has this not reduced the injury rate, in one segment of the shoe market (Motion Control shoes) injury rates have actually increased.
I ran for many years and, because of my horribly flat feet, I ran in Motion Control shoes fitted with rigid orthotics. It was “common knowledge” that this was the only way for someone with my feet to run pain free. I developed a case of Plantar Fasciitis that was so bad I not only stopped running, but each morning it literally felt like I was stepping on a nail.
After reading Born To Run (a highly recommended read, BTW) and doing some other research I learned a way to deal with this injury is to remove all the shoe and arch hardware to let the foot move. I found a Podiatrist and Physical Therapist that stuck with me through a rebuilding process. I went barefoot more – both inside and out of the house; including some running while completely barefoot. The result was strong, healthy feet that are now completely pain free. By removing the protection of the shoes my feet and body were forced to deal with the reality of what I was running on and, as a result, I learned to run in a way that was easier on my body. (You can find here some of my blog posts that chronicle me going through this process.)
Turning A Blind Kid Loose
About a year ago I heard an extremely profound episode of the NPR program This American Life titled Batman. The majority of the episode is spent chronicling the life experiences of Daniel Kish. Daniel has been blind virtually all of his life. Daniel, who was a strong-willed and rambunctious child, was allowed to do things sighted children do. He instinctively taught himself the skill of echolocation. By clicking his tongue and listening to the sound of the response he could tell what was (or wasn’t) around him. This enabled him to do things that most of us do not think of blind people capable of doing: He rode a bike. He hiked. He did all sorts of things.
His echolocation abilities, along with his resulting positive life experiences, did not come without some pain. He had teeth knocked out. There were tons of bumps and bruises. But those experiences, while painful, enabled him to learn an immense amount about his world and how to be in it. The end result: A blind person (Daniel) has had life experiences that many blind people do not. By being given the freedom to deal with and experience things directly he adapted…….and benefited as a result.
Can Going Open Source Improve Business Focus & Execution?
In the above examples the common theme is this: Removing that which is intended to provide protection results in the person having a more true and accurate understanding of the environment they are in. By having this more realistic experience (“high fidelity input”, if you will) they learn, adapt and produce better results.
What might happen if a software company were to base their business on open source technologies rather than relying on closed source (proprietary) technologies and features? Could the removal of that “protection” (unique, proprietary technology) actually enable them to better execute in other aspects of their business and customer interactions?
The company would need to compete based on something other than product features – since those software features would be available from other vendors as well. Maybe the company chooses to compete by offering the best customer service. Or offering support at a cost/quality ratio that hits a sweet spot of a particular slice of the market. There are other possibilities as well. But by not relying on unique product features the business is forced to differentiate in other areas – and consequently hone their performance in those areas.
My broadband provider delivers a very good product. It’s fast and it’s stable. What else do we want in broadband service? Give me a big pipe that is always working and I’m (pretty much) a happy camper.
The problem is that their customer service is bad. Really bad. Horrible. Horrible to the point I cringe whenever I have to interact with them. Fortunately, because the service is reliable, I don’t have to interact with them often. But when I do it’s bad. The reason I stay with them is that they have the fastest service – and I’m willing to put up with the bad service in order to get that fast network performance. But if another vendor were to come along that offered similar speeds and reliability with better customer service – I would change vendors in the blink of an eye.
Is that broadband supplier successful? Obviously yes: They get a check from me each month for the service they provide. But their strong technology masks the fact they’re falling down in another area. If I had another option where I could get broadband then my current vendor would have to either 1/ really improve their service or 2/ lose a customer and, potentially, go out of business.
Am I claiming that going from proprietary to open source will automatically cause a company to offer better service and execute better overall? Definitely not. Conversely, am I saying a business based on proprietary technologies can’t offer great service? “Definitely not.” again. What I’m saying is that by removing an area of company differentiation (unique, proprietary technology) that has been the focus for high tech companies for many years they will be forced to compete and differentiate themselves on something other than technology. The result, hopefully, is a better overall experience for the customer.