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Famous Missed Opportunities

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Famous Missed Opportunities

Mental models create road maps that guide our decisions. Unfortunately, these maps also potentially block our ability to see emerging problems and opportunities. Here are a few famous examples:

L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland approached Hollywood studios about a new film featuring a lowly squire in fourteenth-century England who aspires to be a knight. The squire and his street-smart colleagues (including Geoffrey Chaucer) would do battle on contemporary themes such as youth, freedom, and equality. The entire film would be set to 1970s rock music. The Hollywood studios weren’t impressed. “When I pitched it, I couldn’t sell it,” laments Helgeland. “Some people would laugh and then say, ‘What are you really here for?’ ” Undeterred, Helgeland eventually convinced Columbia Pictures to back the project. The film, A Knight’s Tale, recouped its $41 million costs in just three weeks and went on to become one of the more successful films of the year.

Graphical user interfaces, mice, windows, pull-down menus, laser printing, distributed computing, and Ethernet technologies weren’t invented by Apple, Microsoft, or IBM. These essential elements of contemporary personal computing originated in the 1970s from researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research center (PARC). Unfortunately, Xerox executives were so focused on their photocopier business that they didn’t bother to patent most of these inventions. Xerox has successfully applied some of its laser technology, but the lost value of Xerox PARC’s other computing discoveries is much larger than the entire photocopier industry today.

In 1961, William Oldendorf developed a machine that would become the foundation of modern CT scanners, replacing much more invasive procedures to diagnose the brain. But CT scanners didn’t arrive until many years later because manufacturers of traditional x-ray equipment couldn’t see any value in Oldendorf’s discovery. A letter from one company said: “Even if it could be made to work as you suggest, we cannot imagine a significant market for such an expensive apparatus which would do nothing but make a radiographic cross-section of a head.”

When the World Wide Web burst onto the cyberspace scene in the early 1990s, Bill Gates wondered what all the fuss was about. Even as late as 1996, the Microsoft founder lampooned investors for their love-in with companies that made Internet products. However, Gates eventually realized the error in his mental model of computing. Making up for lost time, Microsoft bought Hotmail and other Websavvy companies and added Internet support to its Windows operating system.

Companies can learn from these examples, recognizing problems and opportunities will always be a challenge, but the process can be improved through awareness of these perceptual and diagnostic limitations. Decision makers discover blind spots in problem identification by hearing how others perceive certain information and diagnose problems. Opportunities also become apparent when outsiders explore this information from their different mental models.

Reference: Sources: “W. Oldendorf,” ASNWeb (online), August 2003; C. Sim, “Battling the Odds,” KrisWorld (Singapore Airlines Inflight Magazine), September 2001, pp. 8–10; B. Campbell and M. Conron, “Xerox Ready to Hit Another Home Run,” Ottawa Citizen, June 28, 1999; O. Port, “Xerox Won’t Duplicate Past Errors,” Business Week, September 29, 1997, p. 98; T. Abate, “Meet Bill Gates, Stand-Up Comic,” San Francisco Examiner, March 13, 1996, p. D1.

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YouSigma. (2008). “Famous Missed Opportunities." From http://www.yousigma.com.

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