When is a new product really an old product? When is a sequel actually the original?

When you're talking about Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," scheduled for release July 14 as the follow-up to her 1960 classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." 

Specifically, Lee wrote "Watchman" in the mid-1950s, before "Mockingbird." In fact, according to a press release from Lee's publisher, HarperCollins, Lee began "Mockingbird" at the suggestion of an editor who'd read the "Watchman" manuscript. The editor was enamored of "Watchman's" flashbacks to the childhood of its narrator, Scout Finch. He asked Lee to write the entire novel from the perspective of the young Scout. "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told," Lee says in the release. 

The result of her revision was "Mockingbird." But the manuscript of "Watchman," featuring the older Scout Finch, survived. "I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years," Lee says in the release. 

That's how a new book is really an old book. And that's why revising your original idea is so crucial to the creative process.

From Revisions Comes Mastery

Should you believe this story of how "Watchman" and "Mockingbird" were created? You'd have every reason not to, since it's not uncommon for artists to embellish the creation stories of their master works. On the other hand, Lee's origins tale seems plausible. In "Mockingbird," Scout's reminiscent narrative contains the wry wisdom and self-assurance of a storyteller who knows entirely where the story--and her own place in it--are going. 

Founders, creators, entrepreneurs: You've heard this arietta of iteration before. Often, the project or product that catches on with the public--selling like hotcakes, winning prizes--is not the original effort, but the revision that incorporated crucial feedback. "Mockingbird," essentially, was Watchman 2.0: an iteration Lee completed after receiving a critical response to her prototype. 

If you've created anything for public consumption, be it literature or software, you know: Sometimes your have blind spots for what's best about your own work.  

One prominent entrepreneurial example comes from Scott Cook, the co-founder of $4.5-billion Intuit--the legendary company behind TurboTax and QuickBooks. Speaking at Harvard Business School's graduation ceremonies May 27, Cook explained how Intuit's first product, Quicken, was intended to automate the personal finances of the average consumer. But not long after Quicken came out, the Intuit team learned that about 50 percent of Quicken's customers were using the software to run small businesses.

You might think any entrepreneur who learned something like this would reroute his strategy and begin targeting businesses. Not Cook. "I ignored it and we stayed focused on our initial strategy, targeting personal finance," he said.

But eventually Intuit came to its senses and started making a product for small business owners. Today, that product, QuickBooks, represents 50 percent of Intuit's revenues, said Cook. Quicken is about 3 percent. "And all because we savored the surprise which I resisted for years."

Of course, this is far from the only example of a business model revision stemming from a response to feedback. JadeYoga, beloved by yogis all over the globe for their slip-free mats, has been in the mat business for less than 15 years. For the previous 100 years, it made rugs and rug pads. Then it learned many of its customers were ordering the pads and using them as mats. It quickly pivoted and became a mat maker. 

Sometimes, you don't even realize customers will crave something until they see it. The earliest vinyl records were not made by record companies, but by companies in other businesses: toys and furniture. They were intended as accessories, rather than products in their own right. Incidental innovations like this cannot occur in creative vacuums; they can only occur in an iterative, feedback-driven process.  

Birds of a Feather

One more lesson worth imparting from "Mockingbird's" creation is Lee's straightforward declaration in the press release: "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told," she says.

This simple act--a creator, doing what he or she is told--was prevalent in the many recent appreciations for Donald Featherstone, the legendary designer of the plastic pink flamingo, who died in June at age 79.

When Featherstone created the flamingo, he had no intention of changing the American landscape. Like Lee, he was just doing what he was told. He "had not contemplated creating an enduring emblem of kitsch in 1957, when his first flamingo sailed off the assembly line," notes his New York Times obit. "He was simply heeding career advice that would become a sardonic watchword for young people: Plastics."

Having graduated from the school of the Worcester Art Museum, he took a job with Union Products of Leominster, Massachusetts, the makers of the flamingos and other plastic ornaments. He designed the flamingos in response to his employers' simple instructions: Use birds. Create something for a lawn. Design them as a pair. Do it fast.

Next thing you know, he had the hit of a lifetime on his hands. Which gives flamingos and mockingbirds--or at least, the creators and creations they've inspired--something else in common.

Published on: Jul 9, 2015