Moving mature specialty chemicals back Into high growth

Often a specialty chemical remains in the mature phase of its life cycle curve with low growth and fierce competitive struggle. Getting out of the building and into the marketplace, product developers with a beginner’s mind-set can discover weak signals countering conventional wisdom about the chemical’s life cycle. A modest development investment in assets already in place can take advantage of weak signals and reposition the chemical back into high growth.

Individuals who are experts in the technology, marketing, or business features of a specialty chemical often ignore the marketplace’s weak signals of possibilities for growth. Experts are prone to habits of thought ‘I already know about it’ and can ignore faint signals of levers for growth such as latent needs, new categories of lead users, or customers’ mistaken beliefs.

Two prototypes for experts who effectively detect weak signals other experts have ignored or missed are: 1. Master internal medicine clinicians, and 2. Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of NPR’s Car Talk program. 1

Master clinicians are skilled at gathering diagnostic information from their patients. They keep asking what a patient or other physicians might consider naïve and simple questions. Yet, these questions help the diagnostician put faint pieces of the puzzle into a pattern and into an effective diagnosis.

The Tappet Brothers do not see the ailing car or the car owner, all information is gathered over the phone. The owner brings a complicated problem to them that other mechanics have failed to solve. Through simple and sometimes naïve-sounding questions Click and Clack gather a detailed history of the problem. By hearing faint signals among the answers the brothers diagnose a difficult problem.

Using “the beginner’s mind” for marketplace repositioning                                                                       

“It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind” … Steve Jobs (1993)

Steve Jobs used the beginner’s mind tool to challenge conventional marketplace wisdom on repositioning. He may have learned this tool in the 1960’s from Shunryu Suzuki who was teaching in California at the time. Suzuki taught “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.

Four years before the launch of the iPhone, repositioning authority Professor Youngme Moon2 made a prophetic observation to her Harvard MBA class. She observed that the iPod was a way for Apple to get into the smartphone business after its failure with the Newton. Subsequent repositioning the iPod’s non-stylus characteristics helped develop the iPhone and iPad and improved both revenue and profit margin growth. Today Apple, with 18% share of units sold in the smartphone market, captures 38% of the revenue and 62% of the profits.3

Having expert knowledge in a specialty chemical’s characteristics doesn’t mean neutralizing expertise when using the beginner’s mind tool to probe the marketplace for weak signals. It does mean keeping an attitude of openness to new information. Above all it requires as Dr. Gurpreet Dhaliwal, a renowned clinician, emphasizes … “practice, practice, practice”.4

Dr. Dhaliwal constantly builds his knowledge base. “People are fond of saying: ‘You can look it up on the Internet,’ but we will always instinctively try to match a patient’s symptoms with the knowledge that is already stored on the hard drive of our brains.” “The common theme is possessing the ‘beginners’ mind’ and habitually asking the question, ‘What am I doing to get better?’”

In medicine preventing diagnostic errors is high priority. Such errors rank number two in malpractice claims. Most errors were “preventable.” As a result medical students are now taught how to avoid the cognitive shortcuts leading to diagnostic errors and how to develop a beginner’s mind.

New product developers need to be alert to these same thinking traps and biases when scanning for repositioning signals in the marketplace.

Cognitive shortcuts that miss weak signals

Anchoring Bias Fail to consider reasonable alternatives after making an early diagnosis
Availability Bias Judge signals as more useful if they come readily to mind
Confirmation Bias Look for confirming evidence to support the first diagnosis(Often disconfirming signals are more persuasive and valuable)
Unpacking Fail to elicit all relevant information once a weak signal has been identified


Eliciting information to reposition mature specialty chemicals

There are many ways to gather repositioning information using ‘the beginner’s mind’. I prefer, for its speed and global reach, to elicit this information through phone interviews.


Specialty chemicals is a large global industry comprised of more than 400 companies and with total revenues of $768b (2011). Most specialty chemicals are in the mature part of their life cycle with a compound annual growth 2.7% (2007-2011).  Wikipedia

1. Master clinicians and Click and Clack

2. Professor Youngme Moon

3. Apple: units, revenue, profits


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