Will Page, former chief economist at Spotify, helped the music streaming platform react to the huge, pivotal changes in how people buy and listen to music that have happened over the past decade. In his new book, Tarzan Economics, Page argues that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to further accelerated change, not just in music, but in all aspects of business.
This means learning the rules of ‘Tarzan economics’, first outlined by technologist Jim Griffin: “We cling to this old vine that keeps us off the jungle floor. At the same time, we lack the confidence to swing for the new vine. The trick is figuring out when to let go.”
The book’s subtitle, ‘Eight Principles for Pivoting through Disruption’ hints at the multitude of valuable lessons contained within. Here, I’ve pulled out some top lessons specifically for project professionals looking to pivot amid radical change, whatever industry they’re in.
1. Learning from the disruptors
Page recalls the emergence of Napster in the late 1990s. This service allowed music fans to download any pop song within seconds without spending a penny. Nirvana for music fans, but an appetite for destruction for the industry. The early response from music labels was to litigate against Napster and its ilk. Spotify’s innovators, including Page, believed the best approach was to embrace, not fight, the online model. After establishing economic evidence on what consumers wanted, Spotify strove to make a better platform to monetise new forms of digital consumption.
Lesson: Learn how your business can compete with new forms of competition and get it back to the place where it can recover. What are the disruptors doing so well and how can your project take this forward?
In 2007, indie veterans Radiohead found themselves free of a major label deal. They announced that their new album In Rainbows would be made available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis. In addition, after fans had either paid or downloaded the record for free, Radiohead issued a £40 limited box set edition and a normally priced CD, which went into the charts at number 1. The band had the freedom to experiment and learn more about their fans’ buying and listening habits. Could Radiohead go it alone without a label, still make money and give their fans something new and exciting?
Lesson: Cost-benefit analyses are particularly tricky in times of disruption. You need to challenge entrenched rules, assumptions and gain a better understanding. What do your customers want in this new world? What new gains or services do they need from your project or business? Are there new approaches to pricing you can take? Pivotal thinking means looking beyond, over and around the obvious ways of thinking.
3. ‘Thick’ data
Page argues that relying too much on the bandwagon of big data “risks us making big mistakes”. He says people are prone to ‘quantification bias’ – favouring measurable achievements and metrics over the immeasurable. Instead “the pendulum needs to swing back a bit from big data and towards something more human. Thick data”. He defines this as human engagement, talking to customers and clients about how products are working and not relying so much on metrics.
Lesson: It’s fine to grab the new vine of big data, but never forget that “the old vine of common sense, talking to people who created that data and listening to what they say, is what works best”.
4. Pay attention
Writing a hit song used involve a formula of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, soaring guitar solo and repeated catchy chorus until the music fades. Because of the downloading model – where artists only get paid if a listener sticks beyond 30 seconds – a new method has emerged. Writers now ensure that the catchy chorus comes in as quick as possible. Artists realised that their listeners have a multitude of other calls on their attention and time such as video games. Also, companies don’t just compete with their own sector nowadays: “anyone or anything might conceivably take up a customer’s time”, Page writes.
Lesson: Learn to help customers make the best use of their attention and time. That could mean improving efficiency in presentations or communication or even changing your project’s scope and timeline.
5. Builder or farmer?
Have you ever stared into the mirror and asked yourself which Marxist guerrilla fighter most resembles your project management style? Is it Che Guevara, the man who, after inspiring the Cuban revolution, tried to spark similar change in Bolivia; or Fidel Castro, who stayed and led Cuba’s communist state for almost 50 years? Both had impressive beards but, according to Page, Guevara was a builder and Castro a farmer. A builder values “flexibility, creativity and agility” – those are the attributes Spotify’s founders used to build the platform from the ground up. A farmer “wants to reap the benefits of Spotify for years to come. So, they’re obsessed with process, predictability and frameworks”.
Lesson: It is vital to know which type you are to help you best learn when and how to pivot in the face of disruption. Builders are at the heart of innovating through disruption, while farmers harvest the new path forwards.
You may also be interested in: