In 2010 a doctoral student at the University of California claimed to have unearthed an interesting pattern behind the success of teams in the NBA.
The thesis was that that the teams whose payers spent proportionally more time fist pumping, back slapping, high fiving, chest bumping and hugging each other in the earlier parts of the season were more likely to have done well at the end of it.
Well, the argument went that the increased amount of personal touching by the players lead to an increased feeling of trust and cooperation between them, which subsequently made them perform better as a cohesive unit on the court.
So potentially a few small changes to the way that teammates communicate and interact with each other could have a more positive effect on overall performance than bigger, more expensive changes such as state of the art training facilities or retreats.
In the world of business it is well known that sometimes the smallest changes and tweaks to existing models and approaches can be substantially more effective than large, disruptive ones in increasing revenue, changing direction, and even choosing an initial path for a startup.
So why is it that the most successful businesses are often the ones that make the smallest changes?
The flawed logic of “big changes = big results”
We are all guilty of thinking like this from time to time. From the people that think becoming healthier means starving themselves of everything they enjoy to those that are convinced that buying a whole new wardrobe of clothes will rejuvenate their social life, the fallacy that big changes always equals big results is a prevalent one in all of our lives.
It is the same with businesses both big and small.
Businesses are after all a collection of individual processes that together contribute towards a higher goal. Looking at each of these processes individually as a source of productive change makes far more sense that trying to change the whole. In fact, big changes are likely to be disruptive to your daily operations.
It has often proved a better strategy to try and think of the optimising tweak rather than the game-changing ‘big idea’, even in companies which we see as the quintessential ‘big idea generators’.
Google is a great example of a company that has used a number of small tweaks to existent ways of thinking and providing a service to become a truly huge business colossus.
The foundations of Google, PageRank, was itself a small tweak to the way people thought about results – why not incorporate factors to determine site quality into the search algorithm itself – which quietly altered the path of online search forever. Until this point, only the worst low quality sites were caught by search engines using specific blacklists.
The small attitudinal change of seeking to measure quality signals by algorithm, although it was far from trivial to implement, ultimately created a business behemoth. It was only a tiny alteration to the way the problem was looked at, but the way the problem was solved was completely different from that point on.
Perhaps the most important result of this attitudinal tweak was the idea that it was the users that were the main quality metric. Google’s main asset to this day remains its huge pool of users and the extensive amount of data that the company collects about their online behaviour.
HP’s 3PAR is currently in the process of redefining their industry due to the effects of their own tweak in the storage market. The central idea was that it was actually possible to utilise all of the server space which is usually left to go idle in most systems through the process of “thin provisioning.” This process is essentially a way of using virtualisation technology to optimise the use of storage space.
Before this kind of thin provisioning was introduced and formalised by 3PAR in 2002-3, most server systems would require large amounts of storage to be pre-allocated to certain tasks in order to deal with the complexity of growing loads. Thin provisioning allows a server to “over-subscribe” or view more storage capacity then has actually been reserved, which allows lots more flexibility in storage volume growth.
A small change for outsiders, but a big difference for the industry.
Apple are widely regarded to be one of the most innovative companies operating in the world today, and many of the company’s biggest hits are spectacular displays of the ‘tweak’ in action.
Apples’ real tweak for many observers is their realisation that consumers valued simplicity and design over complexity and control. The company has applied this aesthetic to everything it has done since, to the point where nearly everyone can point out an Apple product from the other side of the street.
Apple took the plunge that few others would dare take, making their products closed, heavily DRM-laden platforms with locked-in ecosystems. The tweaks were small, merely limitations on how users could interact with their device, but these tweaks defined how Apple and their products achieved success.
It was these limitations that enabled Apple to market their products as specific tools that carried out certain tasks (“It just works.”), but it was also these limitations which allowed a simplicity in user interface and in design which ensured that Apple had a USP. To paraphrase company CEO Tim Cook, Apple spend a lot of time making sure their great ideas are packaged inside other great ideas.
Finding that perfect tweak
None of the above companies radically broke the mould or reinvented the wheel. In any system there will always be a way of improving it slightly for a certain proportion of users and Apple, Google and 3PAR have tweaked existing systems in ways that have benefitted them immensely.
What look like industry standards and monumental monopolies sprang simply from that Business 101 staple, the Unique Selling Point; these USPs in term sprang from a tweak in thought and approach, not a deliberate artificial construction of a game-changing USP.
So for budding entrepreneurs or company owners that are struggling to find their place in a crowded and bustling marketplace, the focus should always be on the small scale attitude-shifts rather than the large scale outcomes.
Instead a company really needs to understand the industry it is operating within and how it operates within it and look for the little changes and tweaks that no else has yet considered doing.
After all, it’s always the second mouse who gets the cheese.
Do you guys have any other great examples of unthinkable tweaks that led to big results?