Unplugged - Technology’s ties to innovation aren’t as strong as you think

by Peter Merrill

Many people think technology drives innovation. In fact, the opposite is true. Innovators may use technology to find innovative solutions, but the innovation process is driven by customer needs, not technology. Throughout history, the essential creativity of people has led to incredible achievements, such as the construction of the pyramids, the development of the steam engine and today’s endless digital applications. It is important to remember that people developed technology, and the true genius behind these technological breakthroughs is often buried in history.

Too frequently, a self-promoting individual takes the credit. The invention of the light bulb is an example. In truth, most technological breakthroughs result from collective knowledge or group genius. 

Breakthroughs are the result of the continual bouncing of ideas between people. The media love to credit one person because the story loses its impact if credit is shared. The reality is that we are gregarious animals, and the lone innovator is an attractive myth but a rare occurrence. It is through teamwork and networking that we arrive at many of our best solutions. The innovative leader pulls together that group genius.

Suppressing imagination

Ironically, creativity—a natural component of our being—has been suppressed by the brave new world of technology because technological solutions are often underdeveloped. The shortcomings of a piece of equipment or, more commonly today, a piece of software are then overcome by user workarounds.

My first summer vacation job was in a bakery. My first task was to stand at the end of a conveyor belt and transfer the dough coming off one belt to another—a mind-numbing task and the result of a failure to fully develop the equipment. I was a cog in the machine, and the experience of my mind being numbed and shrunk made me think, "This is how revolutions start." 

Everyone has used software with an appallingly difficult interface. The worst example of this for me was software with the ironic name "Concur." The developer produced something that actually required the use of a fax machine for the software to fully function. I don’t think anyone would concur with the manufacturer’s design of a product requiring that much additional legwork.

Another deficiency that always annoys me is the ridiculous software keyholes through which you need to post thousands of words of information to use software. People who produce such failures clearly lack an understanding of technology’s application in the modern world.

So why must we deal with these technological failures? Usually, it’s because we do not have a well-managed innovation process, and the process that does exist does not fit with the organization.

Two phases

The innovation process has a creative phase in which people find conceptual solutions and an execution phase in which those solutions are developed and made to be more user friendly.

The creative phase requires an open mind that creates lots of ideas. The execution phase requires focus and diligence to create a working solution. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."1

One of the biggest obstacles for an organization delivering new technology is caused by failing to structure itself so it can create and deliver. We pair product research and development for short-term convenience. 

Organizationally, we should pair market research and product research. This is the creative work. Then, we should pair development and delivery to make the solution work in the user environment.

The common bond in the creative phase is research. But the market researcher and scientific researcher sometimes struggle to work together because market research focuses more on people and their behavior, and scientific research focuses on the product and its behavior.

A successful organization encourages this diversity and recognizes it is the spark of genius. Breakthroughs occur at the intersection of the bodies of knowledge and in clashes of cultural diversity. The marketers and scientists in this creative phase need the same work environment, so this is a feasible setup.

Both groups need space. They need open networks in which they can interact with diverse people. They need to behave in similar ways. In both cases, exploration, collaboration and experimentation are essential behaviors. 

Often, we give that freedom to the marketers but fail to give it to the scientists who are confined to a lab and asked to think inside the box. It’s a foolish approach because this is usually the low-budget phase of the innovation process.

Falling short

But the phase of the innovation process in which the organization fails to deliver more often is in the execution phase. The mission in this phase is to make the new offering user friendly and get it in the hands of the user. Behavior in this phase must be radically different because it requires high speed and intense focus.

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman earned a Nobel Prize in economics. Among his work was a key finding: Developers will overestimate the value of their new offering by a factor of three, and end users will overestimate the value of their existing solution by a factor of three. Multiply the two numbers, and you get an obstacle of nine times the value—or a logarithmic increase in value—for an offering to be accepted.

That’s a major challenge for the developer of new technology who must understand the end user’s behavior patterns. Obsession with technological features is the path to failure.

Developers need to operate in closed networks that include customers and suppliers while focusing on building trust among all parties. An increased sense of trust leads to more and faster knowledge sharing.

Developers need the discipline of good project management, and operations needs a sound quality management system to deliver quickly without rework. Additionally, the concept work in the creative phase often produces inadequate data, which burdens developers with extensive rework on a flawed concept. 

Standard solution

Developers can do worse than clause 7.3 in ISO 9001:2008 to remedy this situation. The discipline of development planning and review offered by the standard significantly strengthens development.

Half-baked solutions reach the marketplace because of a half-baked review process. In that situation, interim decisions and the reasons for those decisions are poorly recorded. Three months after a decision is made, it is forgotten, and the project goes into rework mode with the excuse that the process is "iterative."

The development review process also must be hardwired to the management review process—clause 5.6 in ISO 9001:2008. The resource needs for the new offering change constantly in the execution phase, and resources come from organizational leadership. Operations and sales must be closely connected to product development because it’s their job to deliver, and their greatest ally will be advance notice of the new offering.

Many of us have struggled needlessly because of new technology that was poorly developed. By addressing organizational issues, it’s possible to deliver innovative technology that doesn’t frustrate the user. And if your organization is structured properly, you will prevent the competition from stealing an underdeveloped idea—and the potential customers that idea would bring to your organization.


  1. The Quotations Page, www.quotationspage.com/quote/2054.html.