VW drives concept car through shrinking window of opportunity
At a corporate conference I attended earlier this year, a top-executive keynote speaker used the term “shrinking windows of opportunity” to describe a world where change is happening at such a fast pace on such a large scale that there is less and less time to think before you jump: if you think a minute too long, others will have already gone through the window of opportunity and closed it behind them.
Example: Apple’s iPad opens up a new market for tablets, within 6 months Samsung and a few others follow suit, another 12 months and a few more competitors join in, but we’re rapidly nearing end-game: those who haven’t taken a share of the market within 18 months are out, the window is closed.
Last week, under the headline Car chiefs face up to oil price challenge, the FT was echoing fears amongst auto manufacturers that “higher fuel prices could once again push US consumers towards smaller cars as they did in 2007 and 2008.” While some manufacturers (arguably those with a weak offering of small cars) claim they are not seeing the trend yet, others that have invested more heavily in small cars, such as Ford and Volkswagen (VW), are already seeing the shift.
VW is even taking the unusual step of building a small series of one of its concept cars, the futuristic-looking XL1, a two-seater hybrid that consumes 0.9 litres per 100 km. This is indeed unusual on at least two accounts:
a) the very idea of small series does not sit easily with mass market manufacturers such as VW;
b) commercialising a concept car – even on a small scale – represents a dramatic acceleration of the normal time-to-market.
The move is not only an illustration of the shrinking windows of opportunity challenge, but also an insight into how we might address it. Normally, prototypes are not meant for commercialisation. To reduce time-to-market, the innovation process has even introduced the concept of rapid-prototyping whereby a first prototype is made ‘cheap-and-dirty’ but so quickly that it overlaps with the ideation phase. A wooden version of the first Palm-Pilot has become the legendary example of rapid-prototyping, and it is obvious that such a prototype is not for sale! What the VW case illustrates is a form of prototyping that now overlaps with the commercialisation phase. Unlike the fast-prototype it won’t be cheap and dirty, as VW needs to protect its brand image. But it will still come to market faster than a full-blown mass market model.
Where a highly simplified innovation model used to be:
- idea > prototype > commercial product,
an emerging model appears to be:
- idea > fast-prototype > prototype > commercial prototype > commercial product.
The chain looks longer but the model will reduce time-to-market and enable those who master it to get first through shrinking windows of opportunity.