Examining the nature of virtuous and vicious cycles in technology.

A Tale of Two Cycles – Vicious and Virtuous

In the Bhagavat Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna,

You have a right to perform your prescribed action,but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results your activities,and never be associated to not doing your duty.

But is that really always true in the technology business?

One of the most fascinating elements of the tech business and often times in the broader area of consumer products is the stark tale of two cycles – the Vicious and the Virtuous and how it appears to override the general principle that good effort often yields good results.


So what is a Vicious Cycle?

Consider this example. Microsoft was late to the modern smartphone OS party (if you discount the Windows Mobile efforts of the past). When they arrived with well built Nokia Lumia phones in tow, they were late. Android and iOS had all the developer attention. The Lumia phones were well built and the OS had a brand new UI titled Metro that ushered in a new generation of flat design (since then adopted by Apple and Google). But there was no third party app support. Third party apps didn’t come in because of lack of volume in the phone sales. And the phone sales didn’t pick up due to the lack of the key third party apps.

The ecosystem and its best products were stuck in a vicious cycle that consumed Nokia as a standalone company and is still a sore point in Microsoft’s bottom line. A self perpetuating vicious cycle.

A Virtuous Cycle on the other hand…

This is the dream for products, brands and companies. Developing enough good will and a broad ecosystem that is so powerful and adopted that sub par or overpriced products do well above their expectations by virtue of being in a virtuous cycle.

Here is an example of a virtuous cycle. Apple puts out its new iOS update to coincide with its new iPhone launch every Fall. In a few weeks, most of the iOS devices upgrade to the new OS. This is great for Apple’s third party developers because they can focus their efforts and app updates on the new OS with new and cool features. And the cooler and better the apps are, the more the number of people who prefer the iOS ecosystem and buy new iPhones. So by virtue of having people upgrade their OS, Apple gets a much richer quality of apps which in turn brings more people into the iOS fold, year over year.

Breaking away from the vicious cycle

One of the biggest business challenges is for a company to break away from the clutches of a vicious cycle. It is easier said than done and there is no one solution fits all. But there are some things that can be done to progressively break away from the cycle. Here are some of them:

1. Listen to the customer feedback – No product can and should be made in isolation. It needs to be built with the customer in mind and when that customer rejects the product, it gives the product owner all the more reason to understand the customer needs better. There is nothing more important than this. By consistently listening to the customer and building what they need, a product can and will break out of its vicious cycle. This might mean just iterating on the product or building an ecosystem around it.

2. Build partnerships - In today’s technology business, no product can thrive in isolation. Even Apple needs its app developers. Building important partnerships early and often through the lifetime of a product is critical for success. A product built with the right set of partners who are committed to its success will find a way to shine at some point of time.

3. Ecosystem matters - Building on the first two points, building a product that the customer wants with the right set of partners translates to a meaningful and always growing ecosystem. This ecosystem is critically important to cultivate the stickiness factor it builds among its users. And stickiness is the first step in a broader adoption of the product. Even if the first version of a product fails, continuing to build out the ecosystem will eventually bear fruit.

4. Perseverance - If it was as simple as knowing what to do and executing on it, no product or company would be stuck in a vicious cycle. The fact that so many of them still do means that it is not as simple as what the solution is spelled out to be. Over and beyond all the above mentioned reasons, the biggest and most important factor to break out of a vicious cycle is to persist through it. This might be easier said that done as it involves millions of dollars based on the scale of the product.

A good product built with the customer, partners and a growing ecosystem in mind will eventually catch the fancy. It is a matter of time. And if there is belief in the quality of the product, perseverance would have to go hand in hand to break out of a vicious cycle it is enmeshed in.

Parting Thoughts

Being stuck in a vicious cycle can demotivate everyone pulling in long hours and endless weeks and months trying to build what the believe is a world class product. Sometimes even the best of products suffer from the ghosts of the Vicious cycle. And sometimes, an average product suffers from the benefit of a Virtuous cycle. It is a challenge – mentally and physically to weather the cycle however long it lasts. What is left is just the very best.

This popular quote from Rudyard Kipling sums it appropriately,

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Impostors just the same; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.


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