Is a boat still a boat if it can’t float?
Recently a company launched a product named Grid that comes from some pretty original thinking of how a spreadsheet can look and function.
Immediately there was a discussion about “Can this product really call itself a spreadsheet? It doesn't do calculations,” which was pointed a little critically at Grid.
Paul Graham, one of the investors behind Grid said:
The reason I interpreted your question as a snarky one is that it seemed such a pointless one otherwise– like asking, say, whether a boat can be called a boat at a stage so early in its construction that it wouldn't float.
Actually, I like that question a lot.
Can a boat still be a boat if it doesn't float?
But not for the purpose it tried to serve in the above discussion. For the reason that it helps us break down the prejudices and stereotypes we have of the products we use every day.
It's an incredibly enlightening thought experiment. Can you have a boat that doesn't float?
Normally when I think boat, I think of water and floating. But thinking about a boat without water and floating helps me see how people enjoy a boat without those stereotypical accompaniments.
I was just on a pretty nice boat about a month ago. It had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms. It was awesome.
One very interesting thing about the experience was that after we had taken the boat out for a spin on the lake, we just enjoyed a good chunk of time sitting in the harbor on the boat, eating, drinking and chatting. So did a ton of other people in their boats.
As I think about it, I live near one of the biggest harbors in Chicago on the lake. Most of those boats never leave the harbor when they're parked there over the summer. One huge reason is because of the high gas prices.
But people keep coming back to their boats just to hang out on the boat in the harbor.
Is floating what's really getting these people excited about hanging out on their boat in a harbor full of water you probably don't want to swim in?
I don't think so. I think they enjoy the experience of having a small compartment of life outside. Something slightly exposed, close to a view of water, with all their own choices of food, drink, and entertainment, but still seperated enough from other people sharing the experience. After all, when you're on these bigger boats, you can't even tell that the boat is floating.
Taking that experience and realizing that a boat remains special to these people, while floating (especially in open water) isn't integral, you can come up with product ideas you may have not considered before: hotels, bars, restaurants that recreate that feeling of a boat compartment; services that allow you to rent some harbor time on a boat for a party; etc.
The companies and products that get me excited to use and create aren't the “me too” products or the incremental innovations. It's the companies and products that show me that I have stereotypes in my mind for things I use everyday and that I was wrong for having those stereotypes. It's the things they put in front of me that remind me to be more imaginative.
Cirque du Soleil shows us you can have a circus without the typical elements of a circus (animals, big tents). Apple shows us that you can have an extremely useful computer that doesn't have typical computer accessories (optical drives, memory slots). Southwest Airlines shows us you can sell airline tickets without food or seating assignments. Greg Achatz shows us you can have a restaurant that doesn't take reservations but instead sells tickets like the theater.
People look at these creations and say “Huh. That's different.” A bunch of people become critics immediately. “How can that work!? That won't be useful or enjoyable at all.” But then many people proceed to enjoy the product without the things they originally expected them to have. In the above cases: many, many people.
It's because their creators had the courage to ask the question, can you still have the “thing” without an essence of the “thing”?
Use this as a tool for your mind to explore ways to innovate. To poke holes in our preconceptions of what a product is.
You'll find you can come up with some pretty exciting ideas when you can imagine a boat that doesn't float.
P.S. You should get my next post: here.