Skating to where the puck is going?
A mindset which confines innovation efforts to failed proof-of-concepts, crappy chatbots and Alexa skills nobody needs.
As we begin each new year, we are subjected to the routine predictions about what the year, and indeed decade, will bring in terms of technology. While it’s always advisable to keep an eye on developing trends, I believe that blindly developing for those trends is a distraction for many organisations which already struggle with the here and now.
A strategy cliché
As far as over-used business clichés go, few match the re-purposing of the Wayne Gretzky's quote…
“Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been”
Steve Jobs used it, and therefore so do many who aspire to be like him. The idea is that you set aside what’s happening today, imagine a better tomorrow and create products for that instead.
Forgetting about the here and now is a mindset which often confines innovation efforts to clunky, failing proof of concepts and crap chatbots. For example there is likely an Alexa skill out there for buying car insurance made by a company which struggles to sell it well on the mobile web.
We don’t arrive at the future in a DeLorean
The trouble with trying to predict the future and build things for it, is that users are often overlooked in favour of achieving a functioning version of a new technology. The result doesn’t take account of the current mindset and workflow of users. And therefore doesn’t acknowledge the gaps which would need to be filled in the process.
The future is arrived at progressively, we don’t just land there in a time machine. One advancement enables another and users take this journey in steps, as does society and infrastructure.
Commercial innovation can’t skip steps in this progress otherwise it will often fail. An example of this is the Sinclair C5.
Ahead of its time?
If you have never heard of the Sinclair C5, it was an electric vehicle developed in the 1980s by the company behind the Spectrum and ZX81 computers. They are now quite collectable as an example of 1980s technology. But commercially it flopped.
The Sinclair C5 was not a good commercial product. It was a futuristic solution to a problem people weren’t trying to solve back in the early 1980s.
We wouldn’t end up having this problem for decades in fact. When that time came about, the C5 was nothing like the eventual solution. Sinclair was trying to skate to where the puck was going to be. But it didn’t take account of the puck’s journey there and it turns out the puck ended up somewhere totally different.
It got there too early and also didn’t arrive in the right place.
The e-scooter is the closest answer to the problem the C5 was trying to solve. The e-scooter was one progress-step on from human-powered scooters. By the time e-scooters came about, adults were already using human-powered scooters to travel around in. Making an electronic version was a natural progression from this, rather than a sage prediction of the future.
Back in the 1980s, children were the only people who had scooters and even they were more interested in a new BMX.
A recent analysis of 101 failed startups found that the top reason founders gave for failure was that there was no market need for the product. They were either trying to solve a problem too few people had, or their solution didn’t fit with users and their world.
They skated to where they thought the puck would go and got it wrong.
Technology before humans
Commercial innovation doesn’t land unless it is accepted by humans. But the closest many ‘innovators’ get to understanding humans is a trend in a line graph showing the adoption of a new technology.
There is a lot to be said for just building things in new technologies for the sole purpose of learning how to do so. But don’t confuse this effort with innovating for humans. If you want the result to be consumed by anyone, start by deeply understanding the human problem you are trying to solve and how those humans are currently approaching it.
All too often, the technology comes first and you end up with pizza-making robots.
Make things work better than they do now
Innovation is messy and there is no guaranteed route to success. I put it to you that making the next-step improvement to a known problem is a more reliable approach than making guesses about how the future will look.
The best way to identify opportunities to do this, is to understand humans and the problems they face rather than just exploring new technology.
Research & Development begins with research, otherwise it’s just development.