To Innovate, Amplify Weak Signals

10 years of mobile phones

Did the mail come yet?

When I was a kid, I loved mail.  Every day when I walked in the door after school, I’d call out: “Mom, I’m home!  Did the mail come yet? Anything for me?”

The answers to the two questions were nearly always “yes” and “no.”  I didn’t get that much mail – a Ranger Rick magazine every few months, and a first-day-of-issue commemorative stamp from my Grandma were the only likely things.  But still, I loved mail.

At the time, mail was one of the only ways we communicated from our house to the world outside our immediate locale.  The other was an old rotary phone – and no one ever called me so that was uninteresting.

The phone was installed when the house was built, and we had the same phone the whole time we lived there.  It stayed in the house after we moved away too – that rotary phone must have put in at least 20 good years of service.

Compare that with this:

10 years of mobile phones

Those are the mobile phones that I’ve had over the past 10 years.  I’m not getting 20 years of service from any of them.  But then, unlike the rotary phone, both the function and the meaning of mobile phones have been completely transformed in a very short period of time.

The first touchscreen

I took this picture a month ago when Nancy and I were doing some cleaning around the house.  Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what the real story in the picture is.

At first, I thought it was about the different rates of innovation that we’ve seen in telephony and mail.  There’s a story there, but I still can’t tease it out.

Then, I thought it was about planned obsolescence.  But the gap in the picture destroys that idea.  The gap is where my iPhone 4 would go.  It’s not there, because it’s the first phone I’ve ever had that had a resale value.  When my contract on it expired and I upgraded, Telstra gave me about 35% of the original price of the phone for it.  That means that they think they can resell it for around 50% of the original price.  That’s remarkable, but it’s still not a big story.

Then yesterday I had a writing day with Nilofer Merchant.  I showed her the picture and it took her less than 10 seconds to see the real story – it’s about finding weak signals.

Finding and amplifying weak signals was one of the ideas that we had been kicking around all day (teaser!), and she pointed out that when I bought all of those phones that aren’t iPhones, the touchscreen technology existed – but no one at Nokia or Motorola or Palm or Blackberry had thought to combine that tech with a phone.

It’s not that these companies weren’t innovative either.  Palm had combined the phone with a personal digital assistant – that was a breakthrough.  That was also one of the first phones to have apps available.  Blackberry combined the two forms of communication I had as a kid – phone and mail, and created an entirely new market by doing so.

So why didn’t they add a touchscreen like Apple did with the first iPhone?  Because the touchscreen actually makes mobile phones worse.  Think about dialing on your current smartphone versus dialing on one of the old phones.  It’s a whole lot harder.  A phone with a touchscreen is a lousy phone, and if you’re making phones, then adding a touchscreen makes your product worse, not better.

Apple picked up the weak signal of the touchscreen, and used it to reconceptualise mobile phones – as a computer in your pocket or purse.

Find and amplify weak signals to innovate

This is often the way new ideas come about.  Someone sees a weak signal and amplifies it.  The challenge with weak signals is that you can’t use the normal forms of proof to demonstrate that the idea is good.

I did some consulting for a firm that was trying to develop a digital strategy for iPads about four months before they were first released.  The insisted on running focus groups, because they wanted proof that their ideas would work.  The problem was, because the iPad was so radically different, no one in the focus group could picture how it would be used  – including the people running the research!

The focus groups failed because the firm was looking for proof of what would work (“70% of clients said make our website do XX”), not for the weak signals sitting in the midst of the noise that might have pointed to a successful new business model for them.

When we invent the future, we are combining weak signals with existing ideas to reconceptualise products, services, ways of doing things, and entire markets.  That’s more profitable than moving things forward incrementally, but also a lot riskier.  Succeeding at requires vision, creativity and courage.

Nilofer amplified the weak signal in my picture, and took the leap to connect it with our broader story about how innovation works.  It was another small example of how this process works.

These days, there probably aren’t many kids whose first question at the end of the day is whether or not they got any mail.  They already know the answer, because they’ve been reading and writing mail all day long on the computer in their backpack.

They need to find something else to get excited about. With any luck, one of them will find a weak signal, make a leap, and build the next big thing.  That’s how innovation works.


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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12 thoughts on “To Innovate, Amplify Weak Signals

  1. But Apple had been developing touch screens since 1987. Steve Jobs famously wouldn’t entertain them post-Newton until they could be made to work without a stylus.

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