The groundbreaking ideas of 2006 are usually outdated by 2015.
And if they're not outdated, they're boring. They seem like magic tricks you've seen before.
That's why this week's news about Twitter (founded in 2006) is refreshing. If you haven't heard, Twitter is creating a new product so you can (finally) share tweets longer than 140 characters, Re/code has reported.
Leave aside, for a moment, whether you embrace this change as a user. Imagine, instead, that you're an employee. For four months, you've been in limbo. You've been unsure if co-founder Jack Dorsey is just keeping the seat warm, or potentially staying aboard as CEO.
Then, in one week, you learn not only that Dorsey is there to stay, but also that the company will no longer be hemmed in by a number. For the record, Twitter has not yet confirmed publicly the news about Dorsey or the change in character limits.
The origins of the 140 character limit never had much to do with users, anyway. (The limit, if you don't know the story, stems from the 160-character limit of SMS messaging.) Of course, the brevity caught on, abetted by the service's game-changing user design. Twitter, to its credit, parlayed the appeal to become the definitive wire service of the new century.
But as iconic as the company has become--and you can't tell the global story of the last decade without it--business is not a beauty contest. It's a bottom-line game. You can design your service exquisitely. The masses will use it. Some will even love it. Yet it only goes so far with shareholders. As Kara Swisher and Kurt Wagner note in Re/code:
There's much to be done at Twitter, which is going through arguably the roughest stretch in the company's history (which is saying something). The stock hit an all-time low in late August, and those close to the company are concerned about a lack of product vision coupled with the recent departure of three top product executives.
Enter Dorsey, for the long haul. He is reportedly supportive of breaking the 140-character limit. "People have been very precious at Twitter about what Twitter can be and how much it can be evolved," one current senior employee told Re/code. "Having Jack come in and say it's okay makes all the difference in the world."
Redefining Twitter's mission.
Of course it does. As my colleague Tess Townsend points out, founders have a knack for fostering a culture of innovation and identifying product cycles. (By contrast, professional CEOs excel at maximizing those cycles.) What's more, the annals of business history are littered with boomeranging founders who've restored a sense of mission and identity to their companies. The list includes Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Howard Schultz.
For Twitter, that mission--that identity--is not 140-characters, per se. It's the rapid sharing and consumption of information.
Interestingly, Twitter's situation is analogous to what the railroad industry confronted at one of its key inflection points: The need to properly define its capabilities in customer-oriented terms. Here's Theodore Levitt in a legendary 1960 Harvard Business Review article, sounding like a brilliant forerunner to today's mainstream notions of customer-centric innovation. Boldface is mine:
The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented....
The point is, you need to define yourself broadly--in terms of your overall capabilities to deliver value to customers--rather than hemming yourself in based on a narrow-minded viewpoint of your present-day activities.
In Twitter's case, it's plain to see that the company is in the rapid-communications business. It would be strategically limiting to define that rapid-communications capability strictly in terms of 140-character boxes. There are other ways to give users what they want--and what they've come to expect--from the world of online communications and social media.
Now it's up to Dorsey and his team to find them.