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The Wahwah Model for Breakthrough Ideas

Kathy Sierra has returned to the blogosphere with yet another inspiring and provocative post, this time about what she and her colleagues call the EQ model for breakthrough ideas, based on a sound equalizer (EQ) metaphor with various sliders used to model features and potential features in a new product or service. 

EQ model

Kathy suggests that the four ways of innovating, within this model, and in increasing likelihood of achieving significant breakthroughs (and the attendant risks of failure), are to

  • adjust the sliders in minor ways
  • adjust the sliders in more dramatic ways
  • add new sliders for features that have been largely ignored or undervalued by competitors
  • add new sliders for features not even considered by competitors

Examples of adding new sliders include Nike's customization of athletic shoes, Apple's finer-grained music purchases (via iTunes), FlickR's tags, and an art gallery that sells skateboard shoes.  Kathy notes that the book Blue Ocean Strategy (by W. Chan Kim and RenĂ©e Mauborgne) has also explored this kind of innovation (though I imagine with different, and perhaps less vivid or graphic, metaphors) and one of the commenters on her post (Sean Tierney) references Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma (and another commenter, Zach, provides a link to a talk Christensen gave on the topic).

Another blogger, Bruno Unna, sent a trackback to her post noting that the sliders on an equalizer are interrelated (spanning a spectrum of sound frequencies) ... this got me to thinking about devices that affect musical sound in more radical ways than adjusting the frequencies of an equalizer, and reminded me of my erstwhile electric guitar playing days when I had a wahwah pedal, distortion box and phase shifter to alter the sound of my 1968 Les Paul.  I still have the guitar, but no longer have any of the special effects devices ... but my friend Gordon does, and he was kind enough to snap and send me a photo of his Boss setup, which I include below.  In my biased perspective, this represents a slightly more apt metaphor for truly disruptive innovation.   [A more accurate label might be "the electric guitar effects pedals model for breakthrough thinking" ... but this seems like way too many syllables, and so I'll settle for "wahwah model".]


[Update: I've added a photo from the Boss web site of their GT-6 Guitar Effects Processor, which has more color contrast to highlight its different features.]


Finally, I just have to include a link to the "Featuritis Curve" that Kathy included in her post.  Prior to her blog sabbatical, she posted an invitation to her readers to post comments that would lift her spirits, and many people included some really funny jokes and links to [other] humorous stuff.  I saw this featuritis curve while checking my email -- and her blog -- during a brief visit to the Seattle Public Library, and laughed out loud when I saw it (I could so relate to it!) ... startling some of the other patrons.  I'm glad she is back, and sharing her wisdom and wit with us again.

Featuritis Curve

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