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Promise Point

Promise Point

| On 22, Jul 2018

Darrell Mann

Compare and contrast. Think about Steve Jobs’ masterful launch of the iPad. Then think about how Google launched Glass. Downstream of the launch, of course, the iPad was a world-changing success, while Google Glass rapidly turned into something of a back-peddling embarrassment for the company. Could it possibly be that much of the success – or lack thereof – was directly attributable to the respective launches? We believe the answer to that question is a clear yes. Steve Jobs was a master of managing the ‘Promise Point’, and Google were not.

The Promise Point is the point in time when a new entity is announced to the outside world. Prior to Steve Jobs walking out on stage with his envelope, no-one in the public (and, for that matter, most of the employees within Apple) had any idea what was about to be announced. This mean none of us had any time to spend time anticipating what the product or service or whatever it was about to be was going to look like, do or not do. Knowing that humans are pretty good at over-anticipating, not allowing it to happen is a good thing. Especially, when, once people have seen what it is that’s being promised to them, they believe it will deliver on that promise. Make sure that when it’s announced, in other words, that it does exactly what you want it to do. Now you’ve achieved two things: you didn’t allow customers to over-anticipate, and you delivered on what you promised. As such, you just helped build customer trust. Here is the way of building the reputation as thought leaders that execute brilliantly.

Here, by way of contrast is the timeline of Glass’s rise and fall:

  • In spring 2013, the first Google Glass “Explorers” started receiving their $1,500 devices. They could pick-up a pair at one of Google’s designated Glass “Basecamps,” located in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, and London. Visiting Basecamp was a swanky affair — Explorers were served drinks and treated like royalty while Google employees gave them a primer on how to use the expensive new products.
  • Because of the secretive nature of Glass, many of the first employees responsible for working at those Basecamps were hired without knowing what they would be doing. During interviews, they had to practice pitching a random Google product. It wasn’t until the second day of training after being hired that they knew what they would actually be working with Glass.
  • There was so much early buzz around Glass that the job was incredibly exciting. Basecamp employees gave dozens of demos per week and would get to give special demos in cities like Detroit, Austin, and Washington DC.
  • It was clear that there were a lot of kinks in the product, but people were generally still very enthusiastic. At first.
  • The “This is gonna be huge!” mentality started fading pretty quickly. As Nick Bilton recently reported for The New York Times, Glass was still an early prototype and the engineers working on it knew it “wasn’t even close to ready for prime time.” Tech reviewers described it as “the worst product of all time” and Explorers gave Basecamp employees tons of feedback on things that needed fixing.
  • Customer complaints were generally taken into consideration as rapidly as possible, our source says. “The product changed so much from when I first started working on the project until I left.” But interest in the device started to wane all the same — the bugs, impracticality, and privacy concerns made Glass underwhelming (and easy to mock)… in effect the Company was having people pay $1,500 to tell them how to fix the thing.”
  • It was clear that Glass wasn’t yet going to meet all the pre-launch hype. “We kept missing the benchmarks that we had set,” our source says. “All the grand plans that we had at the beginning just didn’t materialize.”
  • At the fancy showroom, the number of appointments started to wind down, from peaks of 60 per day to far less. Basecamp employees started getting cut. Our source started with about 80 other employees, but people kept getting let go in waves as demand decreased and people could choose to get it shipped to their homes instead of having to come to one of the basecamps. Morale of employees started dropping as the buzz around Glass wore off.
  • In January 2015, Google announced that it was ending its Explorer program and would no longer sell its initial version of Glass.

From a Promise Point perspective, Google probably couldn’t have got things any more wrong. By the time of their big launch, the ‘product’ was little more than unexplored potential. Not to mention the thought that, by pre-announcing what it was all about, they triggered an enormous wave of users thinking about potential uses. Quite a lot of them with a tenuous link with the reality. Quite a lot more associated with things that were barely legal. Suddenly Google found themselves unwittingly in the middle of a spying scandal.

Smart innovators think a lot about their Promise Point and do all in their power to manage it. The simplest way to think about managing Promise Point involves working out how you stay below the radar for as long as possible. The moment you become visible, you need to be ready to deliver tangible value

There’s a strong connection here to the Gartner Hype Cycle (Reference 1). There’s nothing inherent about the Hype Cycle, but it is a pattern of market behavior we see all the time when organisations choose not to manage their Promise Points. In many ways, the whole Cycle is instigated by a ‘Technology Trigger’ which is almost by definition the point where companies announce way to soon the things they’re working one. If companies, on the other hand, were truly managing Promise Point in the manner in which Steve Jobs did the job, they’d not be going public until much later. A truly smart project manager, looking at the Hype Cycle would wait until the Tough of Disillusion period had bottomed-out before going public with their project plans. After this point, provided we’re ‘ready’, the only way is up.

Life, of course, is never quite that simple. Waiting until the Trough of Disillusion inevitably means that we are entering the market as a follower rather than a pioneer. Sometimes – and for many enterprises – being a fast, effective follower is exactly the right strategy to adopt. But where does that leave the pioneers? Are they doomed to fall in to the too-early Promise Point trap? Or is there something they can do to mitigate the Hype Cycle risks?

Figure 1: Gartner Hype Cycle & Promise Point Management 

In classic TRIZ fashion, someone somewhere already solved the problem. Not always flawlessly, but nevertheless usually well enough to offer some useful insight to others. Enter the aerospace industry. Very definitely a ‘someone’ with a more extreme version of every innovator’s Promise Point problem since the gestation period for a new aircraft design is measurable in years. And in today’s massively transparent, speed-of-light world that might just as well be an eternity.

Not only that, but the additional layer of complexity the industry must manage its way through is the service life of the products they’re designing. A successful aircraft project will likely mean the design will still be in service in 40, 50 or in some cases 60 years into the future. How on earth do designers anticipate customer needs that far into the future?

Answer, they spend a significant proportion of the development time of an aircraft project in ‘Exploration’ mode. From a Design Thinking ‘double-diamond’ divergent-convergent process perspective, a new aircraft design will spend a lot of time in Problem-Definition-Divergent mode (Figure 2). Sometimes up to 75% of the development period time will be spent in this mode. What’s happening during this period is the development team are ‘managing the unknowns’ and conducting research and trials to answer as many of them as possible, as fast as possible and spending as little money as possible.

Reference 2 offers up the basics of this ‘managing the unknowns’ methodology. Lots of flexible team-work, very short planning cycles, regular team meetings and no Gantt charts. And, Promise-Point-wise, no announcement of what’s happening to the world at large. Managing the Promise Point in aerospace terms means that during this Exploration work, the team works under conditions of extreme invisibility. And that includes periods when its useful to bring customers on board to help answer some of the unknowns, since they’re also bound by the terms of the invisibility cloak. In some cases, in case the message hasn’t been pushed far enough, even the internal senior leadership team will be kept out of the information loop. Not only is there a Promise Point management job to be done with the external world, there’s also one to be done internally. In extreme cases this will indeed keeping senior leaders out of the loop, but in almost every case it will mean keeping the Operational Excellence production people out of the loop. That’s what Skunkworks are all about – keeping development work out of the hands of the production people until the Exploration is done and the prototype is ready to leave the hangar.

Figure 2: Where The Aerospace Industry Spends The Majority Of Its Development Time

This probably worked best during the 1950s and 1960s when the US X-Plane R&D strategy was at its adventurous peak – Figure 3.

Figure 3: X-Planes 

Crucially, none of the outputs from the X-Planes programme were – or ‘are’ – intended to be production solutions. They are ‘mere’ technology demonstrators to help answer critical unknowns before the actual ‘right situation’ specification for a production aircraft can be drawn up.

Skunkworks, when they work well, are all about a working high-learning-low-spend mentality of individuals who love breaking rules in order to find better rules. Things like ‘budget’ are often somewhat notional affairs, at least in detail terms. The team is given an overall pot of money, but they – and the unknowns they’re expected to answer – are the ones that will work out how best to distribute the money. Indeed, working out how to distribute the money is one of the first unknowns requiring to be managed.

Not having budgets and having senior leaders being largely ‘out of the loop’ is often perceived as quite threatening in the majority of industries. Probably quite rightly so when the R&D teams aren’t inculcated into the ways of the Explorer and are instead viewed with skepticism by the rest (Operational Excellence) part of the business.

One response to this skepticism has been Discovery Driven Planning (Reference 3). It too operates on the premise that the main Exploration job to be done is converting unknowns to knowns (albeit it tends to label the unknowns as ‘assumptions’). But importantly, it starts by forcing innovators to think about their overall objectives. Recognising the need for innovators to speak Operational Excellence language, these overall objectives are typically expressed in terms of financial metrics like ‘profitability’ and ‘required profits’.

Pragmatic as it might seem forcing innovation teams to be focused on profit on Day One, in aerospace industry terms, such a strategy would represent something of a compromise on the programme. Profitability is an emergent outcome not a design variable. Sure enough it helps to eliminate a lot of apparently un-attractive options, but in a complex world, it almost inevitably eliminates a lot of possibilities way too soon. One suspects, too, that the team working at Apple to develop the iPad, were not working to a profit target at the beginning of their project. As Deming always said, ‘the most important numbers are unknown and unknowable’. iPad emerged from solid instincts (and answered unknowns) about unmet customer needs. In much the same way that Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner emerged from developing a clear understanding that we live in a world of increasing passenger numbers and a perennial need to decrease passenger-mile costs. And a need to do it faster – i.e. through a better exploration learning process – than their competitors. Doing the right things and learning faster than the competition is a far more effective means of delivering future profit to shareholders than Promising a level of Profitability on Day One. This is so because now you’re managing (first principle) inputs rather than trying to control an uncontrollable emergent output.


  • Fenn, J., Raskino, M., ‘Mastering The Hype Cycle: How To Choose The Right Innovation At The Right Time’, Harvard Business Press, 2008.
  • Westrick, R., Cooper, C., ‘Winning By Design: Practical Application Of Lean Principles For Transforming The Speed To Market, The Quality, And The Costs Of New Product Development’, Simpler, 2012.
  • McGrath, G.G., MacMillan, I., ‘Discovery-Driven Planning’, Harvard Business Review, July 1995.