Beyond Innovation: Platforms

Eight platform lessons yield eight design requirements.

army flying platform

Platforms promise the holy grail of innovation – establishing a foundation on which countless new innovations can build. In recent weeks we have examined great platforms, innovations that transformed their industries. Now let’s translate those into eight actions so you and your teams can push your innovation efforts beyond products to platforms.

First, a quick review. From transport networks to operating systems, and from Caesar’s Roman Empire to Branson’s Virgin empire, great platform designs reveal eight lessons. Soichiro Honda, “Japan’s Henry Ford” offered our first three platform lessons:

1. Boost your ambition. If you remain content with today’s success, what you do is what you’ll get. Until someone does it better, faster or cheaper.

2. Issue a challenge. Nothing motivates like a higher ambition.

3. Play to strength. Discover true differentiators, or just what you do best, or what you love doing most – and push those talents harder.

4. Host the party. Smart moneyman John Doerr taught Steve Jobs to open the doors of the iPlatform by curating an app store that allowed Apple and its customers to capitalize on the open innovation of the free market.

5. Find pain. Change the Game. GE Aviation stumbled into a partnership with GE Finance that allowed them to redefine the aircraft engine business from their customers’ perspective, recognizing that the value was up-time, not engines. The brilliance came in acting on that insight by changing the rules of the game, by moving out of the engine product/purchase business and redesigning their offering around an uptime service/leasing business.

6. Fail forward. Learn from Richard Branson’s mother, who taught him to drive relentlessly forward, looking back only long enough to learn from past failures.

7. Don’t push. Great platforms, like great businesses and products, win by providing the most attractive option. They deny the seductive sirens of monopoly who jealously claw back all the profit from participants. Like a gravitational force, they pull in participants and a much broader constellation of customers. In the words of my former partner and early mentor Dick Johnson (it takes a strong character to trot that two-fisted name around), it’s better to win a smaller piece of a much bigger pie. Of course he also told me nothing tastes as good as being thin feels. I didn’t listen to that one either.

8. Place smart bets. Big innovations present big risks as the price for big rewards. Smart innovators spread the risk across a portfolio of options. Platforms typically represent the third horizon – an exploration into untested waters. So balance that risk with a higher proportion of incremental innovations around the core of your business.

Now consider eight criteria that designers, entrepreneurs and senior executives can use to craft their own innovation platforms.

1. Discover the end-user who harbors a nagging unmet need.

Discovering pain requires different methods than traditional market research. First you have to scan. Then you have to dig.

map pain

Scan broadly to map the terrain of pain

It helps to know where to look, which requires the same kind of analytics that astronomers use to map the heavens or geographers use to map the landscape. Once you have the topography, you can pinpoint where to dig.

wet feet

Get your feet wet to deeply understand individual needs

Dress to get dirty. You have to go into the field, into peoples’ lives. Wear your waders. The secondary research of scanning for innovation pattern recognition is an emerging art. Digging relies on the more estalished but highly specialized science of primary ethnographic research. More on those soon.

Now you have Demand.

2. Describe and dimensionalize the problem to be solved.

You have pinpointed pain. Now characterize the condition. Find causality. What makes this problem occur? When, where and why? When does it NOT occur, and why?

Frame the conditions of the problem in context. Once you have the dimensions of the problem, distill it down to one sentence. Answer the question — what is the problem to be solved? You may have to test it on a few end users before you get it right.

Now you have a Design Challenge.

3. Envision a bold, multifaceted solution – the ideal that no single provider could hope to deliver.

When you design a new product, you consider the three vectors that solve user need – how do I help the user achieve their goal better, or faster, or cheaper. If you can do two of those you have a market winner. If you can combine all three, you have an innovation, because it changes the game for competitors.

With platforms, you have to aspire higher. Start big. Very big. Instead of better or faster or cheaper, imagine the ideal.

What would it look like if end users could achieve their goal perfectly (the best kind of better)?

What if they could solve it instantly (the fastest fast), or if it could be the resolved behind the scenes so they never even noticed it?

And how could it be solved at zero cost to the end user? Google’s search engine navigates the vast complexity of an opaque global web of servers to produce an answer almost instantly, for free. Now THAT is a platform. And it still could be better. What’s better than free? Well what if your users got paid for their participation?

Push hard to find your optimal mix of solution attributes, striving beyond better, faster and cheaper solutions for the best, fastest and free.

Taa daaaa: welcome to your Platform Vision.

4. Reconfigure your assets to set the foundation for that solution; build a shared asset that pulls in participants.

This next step could take a while. Building your platform begins by taking an objective look at yourself. What assets can you bring to the party? What are you good at? What do you do better than anyone else? Now consider how those tools might be recombined to produce the platform vision. What are the gaps? Who can fill them? Try not to compromise. You’ll be inclined to build it all yourself. A better platform that brings the best bits from partners, bonds you together and makes it harder competitors to band together to compete against you.

You just designed Platform 1.0

5. Welcome the world with open arms.

Open kimono. Not komodo.

Kimono. Not komodo.

Find ways to throw open the doors. Remember the lessons of platforms hosting the party. Send invitations. Appeal broadly. Reward the first ones through the door. The more the merrier. Open platforms demand open kimonos. Participants need to understand the rules, and the value equation of an open market. Greater transparency accelerates platform growth.

Don’t just open your arms. Open your kimono.

6. Release control.

If you’re anything like Steve Jobs, this may be the hardest part. You have to hold the reins loosely, or even let them go entirely.

Allow the platform to flex as demand redefines the boundaries of the possible. The internet was born to serve the needs of academic and government researchers, but exploded to serve far broader and beneficial demand once those boundaries were crossed.

Had DARPA sought to regulate and control, it might still oversee a small, proprietary closed network, and we’d all still be tapping on mainframe terminals at the office. Whole economies of innovation, from chips to apps, might never have emerged.

In the film Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s evolutionary scientist mutters memorably that “life finds a way.” Demand and innovation are like that – eventually, supply emerges to fulfill demand. Innovation finds a way. Free markets find it faster. Your platform should promote that lesson by relinquishing controls and letting innovation breed.


7. Share your story.

Eventually, great platforms tell their own story as their communities chatter builds to a roar. It helps to get the ball rolling though. One fast route to promote your platform — promote your partners. Scott Wilson’s heartfelt video pitch to fund his ipod multitouch watch, the Tic Toc, brought Kickstarter to the commercial world’s attention.

What’s your favorite platform? Have you been party to one that you love? Proclaim it in the comments below.

8. Accept the world’s thanks.

DJ thanksPlatforms, like businesses, must evolve or dissolve. By accepting the world’s thanks, you acknowledge your benefactors. The best way to thank them back is to continue to discover emerging needs, the new demand that your platform makes possible.

Evolve to serve those needs. Your platform grows, along with your power to influence the market. And everyone who participates can deposit their thanks to their bank.


Define the future. Get paid handsomely for your leadership.

Make better.

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