Visionary vs. Evolutionary Strategies for Making Products

There is a conflict between two strategies for making things. One leans towards science, other leans towards art. One has greater chances of success, other has greater chances of impact. One relies on data, other relies on instinct. Both have strong, vocal supporters. I call them the ‘Evolutionary’ and the ‘Visionary’ strategies. Let’s check them out.

The Evolutionary Strategy

Holy grail of the doers.

It boils down to this – make a basic version, get feedback, iterate, repeat. You will probably identify it as the ‘Lean Startup’ approach. Paul Graham captures it succinctly in Six Principles for making new things:

I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.

Iterating rapidly.

Speed is the key pillar of this strategy. Facebook said in its early days – Move Fast and Break Things:

Move Fast

They have now changed it to, ‘Move Fast with Stable Infra’. It’s not as cool, but speed is still dominant. This is the mantra of Silicon Valley, and is uniquely suited to companies which make web-based products. Though with cheap and accessible 3-D printing, it might move to the hardware domain.

Take a look here at aggressive A/B testing by Facebook, which was pointed out by Google’s Product Director, where he listed out 66 versions of mobile navigation by Facebook. The number of icons, size of icons,  which icons are present, their thickness and fill, their colors, all are undergoing experimentation in real time:

I call it evolutionary because the proponents of this strategy generally invoke its parallels to theory of evolution. Because this is how evolution works – by making a lot of trials and sticking with what works. The species who ‘fit’ their environment survive, and the rest don’t. This results in creations tailored for the context, and also evolving as the context evolves.

The Visionary Strategy

Domain of the thinkers.

This is starkly opposed to the evolutionary strategy. Here, typically one person or team defines the core vision, and the creation starts from that vision. Here is CEO of Snap Evan Spiegel talking about it:

“One of the things that happens when you’re an innovator is there’s actually no benefit to being really, really fast,” he told Hempel. “You’re the one creating the new stuff, so there’s no one who’s racing you. It’s actually very important that you are slow and deliberate.”

And as you can probably guess, Apple takes this approach:

Look at the design of a lot of consumer products — they’re really complicated surfaces. We tried to make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through.

Slow. Deliberate. Thought Through. This is visionary design. This is also the more traditional view of design, and can be seen in Design textbooks. You can also see echoes of this in the Design Principles of the legendary Dieter Rams:

Good Design is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

So, who wins?

That’s very hard to say, from any parameter. But from an overall market value perspective, the total value tilts towards the evolutionary approach, even as the highest valued company (Apple) is vision driven.

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 3.12.00 PM

Google, Facebook and Amazon follow the evolutionary approach, and I am not really sure where Microsoft can be placed. On the other hand, it would be interesting to think about which approach makes the most positive impact, and how can we measure it?

One thought on “Visionary vs. Evolutionary Strategies for Making Products

  1. Pingback: Stop and think. – Curated Intelligence

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