Recently Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, took a stroll from his office and on his own, with his own money, purchased the Washington Post for roughly $250 million dollars. It caused a stir in the press for many of the reasons you may imagine. Perhaps more so for Bezos who voiced uncertainty over what he might do with his new expensive asset.
Talk of risk! Can you imagine taking such a large one? Actually, it’s quite common as Janeway documents in his insightful book, “Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy.” The world as we know it is largely the result of bets placed on breakthrough technologies or new ways of doing things regardless of whether they pan out or not.
Scale aside, every innovative entrepreneur I know would say, “Yes,” to my question, in a heartbeat. It so happens I took the plunge in 2010 forming Inside Music, LLC to develop a product. The experience going from Idea-to-Product gave me an insider’s view on what it takes to innovate something novel.
Bezos might have postured on intent but his vagueness is consistent with many features of innovation. Uncertainty colors the entire process. Every step of the way is bound by speculation as to outcome and endless choice, beginning with the most fundamental input: The Core Product Idea.
Core product ideas emerge somewhat mysteriously and usually in rough form, like a sketch or a pencil and paper structural drawing for a painting.
Sketch 1 is an example based on the online education product Inside Music: Exploring Composition that teaches children how to compose music.
Conceived late one night in my kitchen, the core product idea, MUSIC, attracted other product and market specific ideas like content type and accessibility, market segment or education, and benefits like creativity.
Back-of-the-Envelope sketches come from thinking across knowledge and experience areas. For me, the novel idea for Inside Music came from my experience developing learning products, in-depth knowledge of education market trends, and longstanding personal involvement in music making, or more broadly…
Novelty = F (Convergent Thinking + Know-How + Market Knowledge + Passion)
Translation 1: Early Shaping
Sketch 1 provides a canvas for initial translation work. Translating ideas places them under the microscope to sharpen clarity and specificity sometimes before others come aboard; think of it as unaccompanied or solo brainstorming.
Shortchanging this very early part of the innovation process makes it difficult to convey meaning or intent leaving product features open to interpretation and creating project inefficiencies.
If you toggle back and forth between both sketches you’ll notice examples of translation effects. MUSIC, the initial Core Product Idea, is an abstraction until translated to mean TEACH MUSIC COMPOSITION. DIGITAL CONTENT is further defined as VIDEO CONTENT while ACCESS becomes TECHNOLOGY PLATFORM broadening the meaning of both access and technology to ultimately define important product features.
Translation 2: Getting Granular
Translation is a powerful iterative and collaborative process. In developing Inside Music it continued unfettered until every aspect or product feature reached optimal clarity and form, pre-production.
To illustrate, translating DIGITAL CONTENT to VIDEO CONTENT is indeed a large step forward. Even so, VIDEO CONTENT only scratches the surface of what needs to be done to fully define this product feature.
Translation work ultimately produced these final specs for VIDEO CONTENT: Content architecture by proficiency level, seven modular lessons per level, video presenter, lesson manuscript, 10 minute length per video, up-to-three music listening and score viewing examples, two structured and one open-ended studio activity per lesson, diverse music genres, select music examples that illustrate lesson concepts, and dynamic score graphics to visually convey key concepts.
Translation 3: Product Vision to Inspire and Engage
To show the interplay between innovator and team, above items in blue came from the kitchen; the remaining specs were developed collaboratively with the PRODUCT TEAM or authors.
Early translation work from Sketch 1 to Sketch 2 focused on refining the product because it’s the essence of the whole endeavor and difficult to recruit authors and subject matter experts without one.
A thumbnail sketch or prototype is also needed to attract other PARTNERS including potential co-developers and/or investors. These individuals or groups usually look for a big picture, overarching vision statement as well.
Consider Inside Music’s overarching Vision:
“Be the Premier Online Destination for Teaching and Learning Composition”
The statement sets the bar high and provides direction. Useful; however, I found this familiar form of vision too abstract and a bit premature to fully engage an author team responsible for developing Inside Music’s curriculum content.
Instead, I needed a more concrete PRODUCT VISION with enough clarity to help potential authors determine if they want to participate and can actually add value. Getting there meant further refining individual product ideas to reflect larger trends.
Inside Music’s PRODUCT VISION is informed by three trends that directly translate into Product Design Features.
Industry or Education Trends signal an increase in the use of digital content products especially those providing opportunities for creative expression and student collaboration with interactive learning materials.
Product Design Features: Innovative cloud product with collaboration and self-expression functionality
Corresponding Market Trends to redefine music education gain traction on the national level. Composition being a creative music activity receives more focus and effort by encouraging educators to incorporate it into their curriculum.
Product Design Features: First of its kind modular instructional video curriculum
Print to digital product migration or Product Trends accelerates due to better price points and ease of use features for teachers; cloud computing streamlines access to content without overwhelming school networks.
Product Design Features: Composition studio powered by a third-party web-based notation application for activities and assignments; teacher classroom management functionality
Fits and Starts
Good PRODUCT VISIONs cut-to-the-soul of who people are, what they’re capable of imagining and doing, and what impassions them. You want these tangibles and intangibles in place. Otherwise, getting to product is unlikely.
Inside Music’s initial PRODUCT TEAM, comprised of highly experienced industry content veterans, loved the idea of a new music product. Ultimately, however, they were unable to embrace an innovative digital composition offering.
It’s a good lesson on the potential dangers that lurk when innovators venture from their personal space. Highly experienced experts have their own biases that may clash with innovation. A 30-year print content developer is more likely comfortable creating print versus digital product. In fact, very different skill sets are required. Two months into the collaboration I began the search for a new team.
The composition-centric PRODUCT VISION enabled me to recruit a new core team, one capable of producing an innovative, first of its kind curriculum. Sounds like a job for seasoned professionals? Well…
Like other abstractions, “seasoned professional” went under the microscope. With educational product, subject matter expertise is a key but more is needed. The ideal is a blend of subject matter expertise and experience or, in this case, knowledge of the workings of music classrooms and how teachers can add composition to their curricula.
Assembling the “right team” is neither pure science nor applying algorithms to match people to criteria. A bit of luck is involved, too. I was fortunate to find the right team from outside educational publishing and with limited formal content development experience.
Risky perhaps, but the team possessed years of experience teaching composition, had the requisite subject matter expertise, and demonstrated passion, creativity, and multi-tasking capability. In fact, the author team, unbound by traditional pedagogy and print-centric ways, proved to be a distinct advantage.
Translation 4: Build Out
Build out is a function of translating PRODUCT VISION into design specs, identifying partners, and collaborating with them to make it happen.
Inside Music’s partner universe reflects its innovative design features:
Video instead of text, cloud-based instead of downloadable software, dynamic and interactive versus static pedagogy, modular instead of sequential curriculum, and proficiency as opposed to grade based content architecture.
PRODUCT TEAM is elevated on the hierarchy because of its proximity to product and pivotal role in the development process. Project success rests on their capacity to deliver content that informs other product features.
For example, videography can’t proceed without manuscript, nor can manuscript be developed without a scope and sequence content plan that, in this case, includes the heady task of selecting over 50 pieces of music to illustrate composition concepts.
This single example is a microcosm of the entire project, replicated many times over. The nesting and interconnectedness of all the moving parts necessitates establishing “boundary spanning” collaboration and coordination within the partner universe.
These particular culture and control process values go far beyond “inking” partner agreements. Continual reinforcement is required because product quality depends on them. Also, because gaining the undivided attention of all the partners is not always realistic. Filling in the gaps is all about leadership.
Putting it all Together
I began this piece with the ideas speculation and uncertainty. There’s nothing in my innovation journey that resonates otherwise. Innovating, Idea-to-Product is as much feeling and attitude as it is logic.
The feeling-attitude dimension closely ties to the fundamental risk of the whole undertaking.There are numerous ways to convey the mindset needed to approach innovation. My personal favorite is from the great American poet, Walt Whitman and his poem, “Passage to India.”
Toward the end of the poem Whitman writes…
“Sail forth! Steer for the deep waters only! Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me; For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.”
The logic of the journey is what I call, Translating Small to Big. Inside Music began as a single Small idea and evolved into something Big, a product.
Moving from one state to another is only possible by sustained translation work with all involved parties. It’s the relentless deep thought innovating requires. Before Inside Music my list of must have innovation values included collaboration and coordination. Now, I know there’s an equally powerful third: Translation.
Finally, there is a Bigger in the Small to Big progression worth mention.
Going from Product to Product-in-Market is every bit as challenging as Idea-to-Product with its own distinct speculative and uncertain course. Stay tuned.
Inside Music: Exploring Composition entered the US market in 2011 as a Software & Information Industry (SIIA) CODiE award finalist for educational technology products. The product is currently marketed world-wide as a Premium Content package by a major UK music publishing and digital education company.
Learn about Inside Music: Exploring Composition @ www.musicfirst.com.
—Dr. Todd S. Greenberg, TSG Advisors, LLC