A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the Nintendo Wii had taken over the market by choosing to zig while everyone else was zagging. But one of the salient parts of the story that I didn’t focus on was that one of the ways that the Wii was able to actually make money (as opposed to the PS3 or the Xbox which lose money every time they’re sold), was because they chose to use old technology in a new way. Sony and Microsoft have higher price points because they’ve chosen to use newer (i.e. more expensive) technology. However, by using old technology (i.e. less expensive) in a new way, they’ve been able to create a runaway product that actually makes money.
This week in Business Week (10/15/07), there’s an article on John O’Donnell and Ausra ( a company working on solar power) and their ideas for how they can create large amounts of electricity at a relatively low cost (especially lower than traditional solar power options, according to the article–i.e. I’m not a solar power expert). But what I find fascinating is that they’re doing something similar to what Nintendo did with the Wii, they’ve figured out a way to use some old technologies (i.e. less expensive) in a new way (they’re using mirrors to heat water which turns into steam, which turns turbines which is then recycled once the water cools). By using this old technology in a new way they’ve been able to cut costs dramatically and do something which obviously Business Week feels is remarkable.
In both cases, what each of these companies found is that sometimes the key to unlocking their future is found in the past. However, one of my observations as I work with clients is that they often forget the past (Note: clinging to the past is usually bad, learning from the past is usually good). Most of the people I know seem to be looking for the newest, greatest and best, which isn’t a bad thing–unless it keeps us from seeing and using what actually works.
For example, I was recently with a client and as we were trying to come up with a new marketing idea I asked, "Well, have you ever taken and compared all of your marketing tools over the past few years and evaluated what actually worked and what didn’t?" As we were talking, he mentioned that there was one piece that he used several years ago that was by far his best response piece that led to actual business. Yet he hadn’t used it (or the approach) for awhile. Bingo.
This happens to plenty of us. As leaders and entrepreneurs, most of us want to be on the cutting edge. Plus, if we’re honest, most of us get bored pretty quickly with whatever we’re doing. So we want to keep moving forward. But that desire to move forward, can also blind us to some ideas in the past which, when recycled, can often unlock the key to solving the problems we’re facing today.
So as you look at your company or organization and your current problems or opportunities, what are some of the best ideas you had or that worked three or five or ten years ago that might create a possible solution today? Remember: sometimes the past can be the key to unlocking your future!