When I was I kid I was a great fan of ace fighter pilot James Bigglesworth, AKA Biggles. I couldn’t get enough of his adventures, so when I’d been through the stack in my grandmother’s attic I went to the local library.

I ought not have bothered. This was the early eighties and librarians took pride in keeping trash at bay; there was no place for Biggles on their scrupulously curated shelfs.

I’m happy to see that’s changed. Now when my nine year old thirsts for the next instalment of whatever scifi or fantasy series she’s into, the local librarians are at her command. If they don’t have the book in question they usually find a way to get it.

That concept is called Patron Driven Acquisition and it means that instead of letting schooled librarians pick what titles to carry, the catalogue is built based on what visitors actually want.

Which you wouldn’t believe how controversial that idea was, for a very long time. Here’s a whole profession–and a high status one at that–whose sole purpose was to guarantee good taste. What are librarians supposed to do if there’s no longer a need for their core competence?!

Then, as is so often the case with great ideas, patron driven acquisition became the new norm, practically over night. And the fierce resistance died down as it turned out the nay-sayers had been wrong. The new way of doing things was cost effective and left librarians with more time, which of course made patrons happier.

I wonder how a shift like that could carry over to other domains.

I guess of course this is pretty much the default mode of decision making in most open source projects, where product roadmaps are largely decided collectively by developers voting with their feet.

Another example that comes to mind is my own work. It’s hard to peg down the value proposition of business coaching, simply because its nature depends to such a high degree on the need of “the customer”, who in my case is typically an inventor.

It’s not uncommon to start the day helping someone scope a patent application, then move on to bouncing ideas about pros and cons with certain architectural choices, then with the next team to enter therapy mode and try to help heal rifts between co-founders.

Let’s break for lunch there, so we have time to refocus for the afternoon workshop on designing price tiers, or organising sales, or entering into a strategic partnership, or getting ready for GDPR, or finding a great CEO. The list goes on, the only sure thing is that tomorrow there will be something else entirely on the agenda.

And to me at least, that’s exactly what’s so great.

Of course I know most product based companies wouldn’t be able to afford to be flexible like this with their value proposition. It might be possible to build something that eventually pleases everyone, but in order to survive getting to that point, you always have to start small. Small as in doing one job really well for one narrowly defined target customer.

But not everyone is playing the product game, and perhaps it is, that the further out you are on the service side of the spectrum, the more liberty you have to simply be whatever your users need you to be.