Tech people use the phrase “there is a pony in here somewhere” to describe a tough situation where there is a hidden big opportunity. I hear it most often in the context of a stagnating business that can’t seem to break-out and needs a new catalyst for growth. For example, in businesses that need to make a pivot (btw, the most overused word of 2010/2011 in my mind).
I like the idea behind finding the pony, although not the specific phrase for reasons made clear below. Which leaves a very important question: How do you find the pony? I recommend the following process:
1) Deconstruct Your Assets/Capabilities/Resources: Pull every part of your company, organization, product and systems apart. Absolutely deconstruct each of these parts of the business into their smallest base elements.
2) Get Out of the Office: Plan a day out of the office with no agenda and nothing more than a white-board and the list of your assets/capabilities/resources. Bring in the most creative people you can find from within and outside of your company. Bring in people from spaces that are on the periphery to the space in which you current operate. You want to avoid groupthink so a diversity of backgrounds is better.
3) Evaluate Each Element: As a group, evaluate each of the elements you have isolated. Focus on the raw component parts of your existing product. One of those base elements might be the nugget of a big idea, but was too buried in a system view of your product for you to see it. Also focus your time on elements that are nearest in proximity to revenue streams. That is to say, focus on elements that enable other companies to generate revenue, as opposed to those that will require you to be a vendor selling a back-office product at a “cost”. Prioritize your top ideas.
4) Groups: Break-up into groups, assigning each two ideas. Make sure there is overlap, so that at least two groups cover each idea. Assign each group to come back with a back of the napkin business plan idea for the high priority components you have identified.
5) Research: Take the best ideas and work them.
This exercise won’t automagically generate a whole product or write the business plan, but it might lead you down the right path.
So why don’t I like the phrase? Well, the genesis of the phase “there is a pony in here somewhere” is a joke. It goes something like this:
Once upon a time, there was a mom and dad that had two children. One of them was an optimist, the other a pessimist. Wanting to understand why the two children were so different, they consulted a psychiatrist, who set up an experiment to help figure it out. The psychiatrist led the first child into a room that was full of brand new toys. Immediately the child burst into tears. The psychiatrist asked why, and the child replied “all of these toys are new, and if I start playing with them I’m afraid I might break one.” Obviously, this was the pessimist. So the psychiatrist led the other to a room that was full of horse manure. The child immediately dove in, scooping out handfuls of the disgusting stuff. The psychiatrist asked why the child was doing that, he replied “with all this horse manure, there has to be a pony around here somewhere, and I’m gonna find it.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather polish a diamond in the rough than find the pony.