It’s a familiar cycle, one that’s seen time and again. A new generation of devices sweeps in, displacing the current models. The new gadget is a bit thinner, a tad shorter and just a trace lighter than its predecessor—but it comes with more features. The price tag, well, it’s a bit heftier too. Most products follow this pattern, rarely introducing anything truly revolutionary. But beyond this predictable rhythm is another phenomenon, leapfrogging, in which entire developmental stages are simply bypassed.
Progress generally comes through incremental improvements, supplemented by an overhaul every few years. In many industries, the suspenseful drum roll is followed by a marked lack of enthusiasm. But this response is hardly astonishing. Aren’t we in a perpetual state of expectation, always waiting for a real breakthrough, genuine change? Innovations come and go without arousing much attention, because we’re all standing by for the Next Big Thing that will utterly change life as we know it. In short, we’re waiting to be taken by surprise.
But “surprise” is a word that strikes fear into the heart of many a manager. Aren’t surprises something we should avoid? Don’t we spend endless hours planning, strategising and analysing just to sidestep them? In too many cases, that’s precisely the problem. Real change is often enacted without a detailed plan. All that’s needed is a clear-cut idea from which the rest follows naturally. If you want to surprise others, you must first allow yourself to be surprised. New and exciting notions release endorphins and get your adrenaline pumping—precisely what you need to kindle enthusiasm in others. Original, unanticipated ideas stimulate the brain’s reward centre, opening the floodgates of creativity, and suddenly you find yourself carried along by an unbridled surge of thoughts. It’s remarkably liberating to veer off the trodden path, to follow inspiration without knowing where it will take you. In doing so, you pave a new path simply by walking it.
Leapfrogging – In economics and the social sciences, this term describes the voluntary act of omitting or “leaping over” individual stages of development. Its precise meaning varies by field.
In sociology, leapfrogging is commonly used in connection with developing or emerging countries who bypass certain developmental phases altogether, often those linked to fossil fuels. In Africa, a high percentage of everyday solutions for money transfers, public transportation timetables, agriculture or medical care are based exclusively on mobile technology.
In marketing, leapfrogging can designate customers who deliberately skip one or more stages of a product—often software—in order to launch straight into what they view as the most sophisticated version.
It can also describe a willingness to leave conventional approaches by the wayside in favour of the unexpected—thus opening the door to new market and innovation opportunities. Perhaps even a disruption of the status quo.
Successful leapfrogging requires an environment that welcomes surprises. But how does one plan for the unpredictable? Several highly innovative companies do just that, albeit in different ways. One of the most famous examples is Elon Musk, the US entrepreneur whose company, Tesla Motors, is driving progress in the entire automotive industry. SpaceX, the rocket and spacecraft company founded by Mr Musk, has landed several rockets—backwards, upright and in one piece—following successful missions in space. NASA had long considered this an impossible feat.
Both technologies represent a prodigious leap forward. And in both cases, the doubts and objections arising from immense uncertainty were intentionally passed over. The element of surprise was considered to be simply part of the equation.
The path to a breakthrough is not always predictable or linear. Leapfrogging to the next big thing is a process fundamentally laden with uncertainty and surprise. Recognising the value of the power of surprise when we receive unexpected jolts to our strategies, plans and assumptions, allows us to respond with purposeful agility—versus dismissing surprises as problems that lead us to disregard the insights or messages they may contain.
Leapfrogging doesn’t have to take place on a large scale to be effective. Simple strategies, such as being more open to new target audiences, can already make a difference. Soren Kaplan, an expert in leapfrogging, cites the example of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II. Developed for ambitious amateur photographers, the comparatively affordable digital SLR camera was soon discovered by Hollywood videographers. Its video capabilities, merely a secondary feature at the outset, were so professional that Canon was able to conquer an entire new market. Having previously paid little attention to professional users, the Japanese manufacturer suddenly discovered them to be a lucrative target audience—and has begun designing special cameras just for them.
You can also pave the way for a fortuitous surprise by letting customers use your product or service “incorrectly,” thereby randomly revealing new possibilities that you wouldn’t have ever imagined. This lets you develop new products and services that, with a bit of guidance, may end up even more profitable than the original. An example of this particular approach is Facebook, which was launched at Harvard in 2004 as an online alternative to the yearbooks popular in the US. Many of the features integrated over time originated with the user community, which has rapidly expanded far beyond just university students. It’s true that Facebook has become a behemoth whose newest features are the result of careful planning. But today’s midsize companies and ingenious entrepreneurs can achieve the same extraordinary leaps and bounds as Facebook did in the beginning.
Mobility, environmental protection, communications, energy, resources or social change—virtually every field offers a springboard from which to leapfrog to success. The trick is learning to stifle the urge to plan everything down to the smallest detail. Instead, embrace surprise. Cultivate an open attitude, an eye for the exceptional and a passion for discovery. You’ll see new ideas begin to appear, along with a host of surprises with the potential to turn your business upside down and propel you forward. Are you ready?
Published on Oct 25, 2016.