Irresistible Innovation

What do a three-legged race and innovation have in common?

Why do so many wonderful technology developments never come to fruition? What causes some to be so successful, and others failures? Success is like a 3-legged race – it requires a critical sense of timing, with the three legs being:

  • Genuine demand and benefit (current or latent)
  • Technological feasibility in an appropriate timeframe
  • Economic feasibility in an appropriate timeframe.

If any one of the three is out of step, then the likelihood of completing the course, let alone being successful, declines rapidly.   So, for this article, I have looked at some recent failures[1]. My hypothesis appears to be correct. And the key reason is that genuine demand and benefit have not been addressed, or even thought through.   In other words, too much attention is given to developing the technology, and too little to understanding the reasons why people – consumers and end-users – will want/need the technology – in what timeframe, and at what price. It’s the right combination of the three that makes it irresistible! These failures are costly. In 2013, Computer Weekly said that 79% of businesses had a technology failure in the previous year, costing £6.9m, according to a survey of IT professionals and business line managers.[2] It’s likely that these numbers have increased significantly by now.

It seems to me that, with all the hype about the Internet of Things (especially in a consumer context) we are seeing “déjà vu all over again.” It’s the American Home Builders’ Association’s American Smart House Project from 1985. It was full of the latest technology and, even before the days of the internet and wifi, the ideas about home automation and connectivity were fascinating. But that was 30 years ahead of its time – it failed – and IoT is already 5-10 years beyond today’s consumer.

In fairness, the IoT is enabling new versions of old technology. Remote sensors of all kinds combined with effective and reliable communications are preventing failures and problems with all kinds of equipment. Modeling and simulations are enabling people to answer “what-if?” questions about everything from defense to man-made and natural disasters, to healthcare. The main characteristics of these successful applications of IoT are that they fulfill known and existing needs – in other words, existing or latent demand.

How can we create irresistible demand? By including both Technology-Push and Demand-Pull

From a technology-push perspective – this is the more typical approach pursued by technologists

To many technologists who are in love with their technology, it seems obvious that “if they build it, people will come.” This requires understanding the general areas/fields in which your technology operates currently.   These could be anything from communications to transportation to healthcare to food – just about every area of human endeavor.   But more of them will come if the consumer/end-user understands and wants the technology. So start to think creatively around the area. How could you add value to existing technologies and products? Could you add physical or electronic/wireless capabilities to existing products? The following are trivial examples that have already occurred, but I use them to indicate the thought process. If your business is sensors, what kinds of sensors could you develop to help prevent specific problems such as the “health” of bridges, reservoirs, buildings? Develop self-healing materials or paints? Combining GPS with cell-phones opened up all kinds of opportunities – not just for replacing paper maps, but locating services on maps, providing details of traffic, and offering alternative routes. These kinds of things are all commonplace today, yet most of them are based on extensions of existing needs.

From a demand-led perspective – a more novel approach to be taken by a combination of technologists, marketers, and customers working together in workshops.

In this approach, the first step that should be taken is Reframing. There are several definitions of Reframing. In this context, it is a technique that refers to a frame of reference: internal (beliefs, values) or external (rules, policies). It is the process of seeing, hearing, or feeling the object, situation, or circumstance differently—from different perspectives, through different lenses. There are several types of reframing, but the two main ones are:

  • Image/Visual: seeing material objects, landscapes, events, processes and even organizations and systems from different perspectives.
  • Linguistic: using different words to describe the same thing, person, place or event.

There is a well-known image that illustrates reframing. Some people see a beautiful young woman, while others see an old hag. If you focus on one of the images, it is almost impossible to see the other. Only a very few people can see both at the same time. It is known as Wife and Mother-in-Law and was published by W.E. Hill in 1915.

The reason that this is an important concept is that, very often, we see something so clearly that there is no doubt in our mind that we know exactly what it is, what it looks like, where it came from. We focus on it so intently that, when someone else sees something different, we think they are crazy. We think they just don’t “get it,” whereas we may be the ones not getting it. Or one of us may be seeing a symptom of something rather than the underlying cause.

The Home of the Future Project[3]

This project is an excellent example of the power of Reframing, and of a futures-oriented workshop that gave our clients many, many ideas for new products, services, technologies, and businesses. Reframing can often open up many new possibilities and even new directions for businesses and concepts.

An example of linguistic Reframing is the difference between “house” and “home.” Generally, if we think of a house, we think about its design, location, structure, and materials. But a home includes the idea of the people who inhabit it and the home-based activities in which they are involved. Will Rogers conveyed the idea very well when he said, “It takes a heap of livin’ to make a house a home.”



Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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