Note that I have never gone cave diving. I am not that cool.
Following the aphorism “make something people want” is a good heuristic for adhering to market discipline even before making money. Paradoxically, there are many counter-aphorisms like “if I asked people what they wanted they would have said a ‘a faster horse.’” The resolution to this paradox is “Make something people want at some point in the future.” In the long run, obviously you want to make something people want. Someone needs to buy manufactured technology eventually in a monetized economy. However, the whole time you’re not making something people want, you are burning resources. The question then becomes “what is the thing people want in the future and can the technology or idea survive long enough to get there?”
Cave diving feels like a great analogy for this process. While you’re going through the cave, you’re using oxygen and if you run out before you reach the next air pocket, you’re dead. Working on a product you can always test against the market is like normal diving — you can always come up from air and maybe you need to get the timing right so you don’t get the bends.
Perhaps it’s torturing the analogy but there are some interesting concepts to pull back from cave diving. The longer the path, the better you need to plan. If it’s a short hop and you can see where you’re aiming you don’t need to plan as much. Longer paths also emphasize the importance of good milestones — you need to know “turn left at the big rock after a minute of swimming — if you turn right you’re dead.” But you need to make dead sure that it’s the right rock, etc.
If you know that there are lots of possible air pockets, you have the freedom to explore more. Similarly if the technology has lots of market ‘exit ramps’ you can do more exploration. Software is uniquely repurposable which might offer an explanation for why agile product development makes sense for software but perhaps not in other situations. Having a precise idea of where you’re going is very important. Even if you don’t know the exact way, you need to keep your bearings towards where you’re going.