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Roots of New Technology

In this post, I am writing about the drive for new technology. Is need driving innovation or is innovation driving demand? I plan to explore this perspective in the coming weeks. This first post in the series introduces the two main ideas.

Need Driving Innovation

People that focus on innovation tell would-be innovators that marketplace need should drive their invention. Recently, I heard Carol Reeves of the University of Arkansas bring home this very point. She focuses on helping startups and between 2009 and 2017, the University of Arkansas was ranked No. 1 in national startup competition results. You can’t beat that ranking, so she must know what she is talking about.

What ideas have fueled their success? Reeves shared four main reasons:

  1. Interdisciplinary teams
  2. Mentoring from entrepreneurs and former students
  3. Hard work
  4. Try not to pursue solutions searching for problems

The one about “solutions searching for problems” resonates most with me. I spent a lot of time in my career working on projects that could be characterized as “build it and they will come” efforts. Some projects failed and some succeeded. The ones that succeeded, without a doubt, could have been more successful if they were driven more directly by specific wants and needs and not a scope influenced largely by what we knew we could already deliver. Repackaging what you already have isn’t innovation, it’s recycling.

Innovation Driving Demand

In some cases, the idea that need should drive demand centers on the supplier, not the consumer. Part of the story of cloud computing is related to suppliers trying to get more utilization from their computing capacity—CPU, storage and such—in order to reduce their costs. They have excess capacity and they want to use it to improve the cost dynamics. Another example is a computer supplier that, knowing their clients’ servers are routinely underutilized, creates a pilot effort to reconfigure the computer in such a way that more concurrent workloads are possible, thereby driving up CPU and memory use—getting more use for the same cost, more or less.

Some IT suppliers don’t have confidence in their ability to predict the market so they innovate and hope some of it meets the needs of their customers. It isn’t a completely bad strategy. Innovating with just some purposeful alignment with need is good in a number of ways. This kind of innovation keeps and grows employee skills, it puts new offerings and products into the marketplace and it keeps the sales person talking to their customers.

I remember working for months on an opportunity with an existing customer. We spent considerable time and money, very seriously trying to meet their every need. We worked such long days the restaurants were closed when we finished the work for the day and we ate late dinners at the homes of the sales people. After we built our proposal, we presented to the IT board. We gave it our best shot. In the end, we didn’t win the business. We later heard the proposal was too good to be true and as such lacked credibility.

In our loss meeting, I commented that our rigorous and careful efforts may not have not paid off in this situation, but it positioned us to present a winning proposal in the future for some other opportunity. That comment didn’t meet with much acknowledgement as the team was still smarting from the loss. A year later, I found out we had won other contracts with this customer. In part, it was due to our desire and ability to engage. I learned even modest offerings offer the opportunity to engage, and that has some long economic value.

Focus on the Problem

Lets get back to need driving innovation. Reeves dedicated a significant part of her talk on the topic: What’s the problem. She listed the top ten startup mistakes. Guess what the No. 1 mistake was? It was building something no body wants. Items 2, 3 and 4 were hiring poorly, lack of focus and failure to execute sales and marketing. Reeves talked about the lean startup approach. This approach engages customers from Day 1, maximizes learning (about customers) per unit of time, minimizes funding needed and reduces risk, especially of building something no one wants.

Next in this Series

Next week, I will examine top IT trends and look at them from the perspective of need driving innovation versus innovation driving demand.