There Must Be a Pony Here Someplace …

There are many versions of this story, which is often attributed to Ronald Reagan, but it also serves as a good metaphor for those in Product Development.

There are twin boys of five or six. Mom was worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “No,” replied the pessimist, “I want a pony.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

Very often the trick is indeed finding the pony!

Needed – A Sense of Humor

I have written about the difficult odds of success in product development.

Moving past failure requires a strong ego (something I will comment on specifically in a later post), but most of all, it takes a good sense of humor.

Sometimes it is not easy to find anything funny going on. The media seems to have downgraded humor into an attempt to shock or outrage.

Humor does not need to be this way.

Take a look at TED.

For those of you who are living too deeply in your lab, TED is a yearly conference bringing together some interesting people. While humor is only a small part of the conference, the organizers view it as important. So do I.

Humor can still be smart.

Rumsfeld Matrix (Part 1)

”Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” — 2002, Donald Rumsfeld.

From this came “The Rumsfeld Matrix”.

Rumsfeld Matrix

Product developers and their managers have always had trouble dealing with uncertainty. The Rumsfeld Matrix illustrates both the “comfort” that comes from working in the lower left quadrant where all is known, as well as the complexity with working in the top right.

You can bet the “fuzzy front end” is not so fuzzy if you live in the bottom left quadrant.

More about the implications of this in future posts.

Room For Error

Lee De Forest was the inventor of the first amplifying vacuum tube. In a digital world it is hard to fathom that it all started with the development of this device. This led to radio, television, and the first computers.


When De Forest created his first version, a two filament vacuum tube, his theory on why it worked later proved to be wrong. The “breakthrough” came with the addition of a third filament which allowed for the signal to be amplified. De Forest then built a second flawed theory on top of his initial theory. He was later quoted as saying “didn’t know why it worked, it just did.” Needless to say patent litigation followed.

Similarly medieval navigators were able to use the sun and stars to sail ships over much of the world, even though many at the time believed the world was flat and the sun orbited the earth.

We have written about  the role of luck or chance in development.

It seems we even have to provide room for error too.

While the nice phrase for this is paradigm shift, we have to ask — how tolerant is your organization around error and failure?

Good Books (Part 1)

There are very few decent business books in general, and a rare one indeed relevant to product development. If I read one business-related book every few years it is remarkable. Time would be better spent re-reading Shakespeare, history or the Bible. Think about it: If Don Quixote is still in print after hundreds of years, might this be a more valuable read than Who Moved My Cheese?

One important contemporary book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Anti-Fragile.  This is the upgrade to his prior work, The Black Swan.

While some might argue that this is a book about finance, it has much broader impact.


The book has over five hundred pages, almost all of which have to be read to understand the entire tome.

One cannot easily summarize it in a paragraph – but here goes:

Major events, while in retrospect obvious, cannot be predicted. Examples might be 9/11, the invention of the micro-computer, and the Great Depression. No matter how carefully one plans, these kinds of events are missed. We need to understand that these unpredictable events (Black Swans) happen, and we need to be prepared for the unexpected.

So why is this important for product development? Readers of this blog have probably noted references to luck or chance. A Black Swan does not have to be something bad. It can well be an unexpected good event.  Anti-Fragile is how to be robust in a world where we cannot predict the future.

Taking advantage of unexpected outcomes is at the core of invention.