The Swiss Cheese Approach

“Testing, tracing, vaccination…We will arrive at more of a Swiss cheese approach. Every single thing we’re doing: mask wearing, vaccinations, testing, therapy. Every one is imperfect, like a slice of Swiss cheese. But if we do a dozen of these and lay one over another all the holes are gone. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Larry Brilliant on the Tim Harford podcast

We’ve addressed this idea before, to always fix your weaknesses, but the pandemic response is another opportunity to think roughly about cost-benefit actions.

Most of the time, s-curves, there’s a great return whereas the same fixed effort later is like squeezing the remnants from a tube of toothpaste. The iPhone is a clear example where for many years it was an amazing improvement but each iteration is more novel.

However, the slew of Apple products is like Brilliant’s block of Swiss cheese. Each iPhone, iPad, AirPods, etc. has ‘holes’ but overall the company has few.

Framing the Replacement (WWDC)

Great creative ideas are rare but when they do occur they offer a chance for Alchemy

One way to be more creative is to think about the strengths and weaknesses of a current situation, the opposition, and the contingencies. The CoronaVirus offers an opportunity to see how certain businesses are doing just that. First is Apple’s statement, then John Gruber’s comment: 

“Now in its 31st year, WWDC 2020 will take on an entirely new online format packed with content for consumers, press and developers alike. The online event will be an opportunity for millions of creative and innovative developers to get early access to the future of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS, and engage with Apple engineers as they work to build app experiences that enrich the lives of Apple customers around the globe.” 

“Very Apple way to put it — not as a cancellation of the in-person conference but as an all-new online format equally accessible to all developers.” 

So good. 

The advantages of an in-person conference are many. It’s an event, and Apple has always been great at events. There’s buzz with people there. There’s also a sunk-cost-ness to it. If a publication is going to send a journalist, there’s going to be something written about it. 

However, in-person events are exclusive. They’re also limited in scale and scope. There’s different coordinations between a stream and a session. 

The CoronaVirus situation forced Apple to get creative. They had to find the strengths in “an entirely new online format.” 

Napoleon was doomed when he had to fight a defensive campaign. Clayton Christensen warns that capabilities become disabilities when disruption is afoot. Chuck Akre said that he doesn’t compete much with Wall Street because “Wall Street has a different business model than we do.” 

Without effort we all default to ‘the way we’ve always done things.’ Often this works fine. Sometimes outside forces force us to be creative. One path is to consider how strengths might be weaknesses and how weaknesses might be strengths.