2020 was tough, so in many ways, the pressure to show success in ’21 is bigger.  For a digital business, innovation is a crucial platform for success, and technology is a part of this package. 

How can we think of technology and innovation in a new way to increase our chances of success?

There are many paths to get there, but the one I found useful is to start with technology. We often like to think of strategy, market trends, and user experiences first.  Only once we know what it is want to create do we approach technology with the questioning of “how can it be done?.” However, if we consider the richness of technology we are experiencing from IoT to AI, ML, and many other new tech capabilities, it’s time to ask a different question.  With such technologies available at our disposal, we should ask ourselves not only “how can it be done,” but more importantly, “what should we do?” What can we do with these new technologies that we could not do before?  And can we create more excellent business value by innovating through the lens of technology?  I think we can, and to do that, I suggest this framework:

  • Decide on which problem to solve
  • Work out the right questions to ask
  • Identify the best technology to use

But first, let’s talk about sandals and horses

Once upon a time, people walked barefoot. What a terrible time that was. Splinters, sharp rocks, not to mention animal dung. One had to watch where they placed their feet next.

And then, some genius invented the sandals. What a relief! People could straighten their backs, and folks could finally have a look around to see what else is happening in their world.  And the distances! One could walk further with those soft sandals, further than ever before. 

But not that far; even this cushioned solution had its limitations.

And then, a rumor was passed from one village to another about this guy who can domesticate horses. There was no need to walk anywhere anymore. One could ride horseback and get further in half the time!

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You know how things evolved from there. Horses led to carts, and steam engines displaced carts. The steam engines lost to electric motors, who interestingly lost to combustion engines. And now we are entering another age of electric mobility. The cycles of improvement keep on coming, which is great news for innovators. 

Problems persist

For example, as portrayed in my mockery of the history of mobility, getting from point A to B still requires some extra effort to this day. We can’t magically appear at the destination of our choice even as 2021 rolls to a “great” start. We need to make the extra effort to walk to get somewhere or wear heavy protective gear if we are a motorized two-wheel aficionado. If you care for the state of the planet and choose to take a shared scooter, you will need to sign up for an app, find an available ride nearby, and drive yourself to where it is you are going.  

The problem of getting from one place to another persists, regardless of how much progress technology has made. The silver lining is that with each iteration of technology, we can solve these persisting problem better. It’s better to ride a horse than to walk; it’s better to drive in the comfort of your car than on a horse, and if you live in a city, it’s better to use shared rides and not own a vehicle at all.

So what is innovation?

Lot’s of opinions here, but after many years of startup, corporate, product and technology innovation, this is my take.

Innovation is the next better iteration.  A better user experience, a more efficient system, a better business model. A meaningful improvement, that excites users and is possible to implement. 

That’s it. And since problems persist, even if we solve a problem, there will always be a better solution. Better solutions are easier to come by when technology advances because technology is a rich platform for innovation, or in other words, for making the next better iteration. 

Technology and innovation 

Let’s take the massive universe of technology, and divide it into three groups based on the level of excitement.

On the one extreme, we will have boring technology. CRMs, databases, even web and mobile apps are regressing into this category. It’s what we used to call “High Tech” a few years ago. It’s boring because it’s the saying “there’s an app for that” materialized. There is already an app for “that,” and I can say that with confidence without even hearing your idea. Years of innovation and iteration covered most bases. Even if there is a better solution to hail a cab, or book a ticket or message a friend, it’s usually borderline exciting. Facebook had to make a mess of WhatsApp terms and conditions for all of us to wake up from our privacy slumber and make the extra unthinkable effort to reach for our phones, search for Signal or Telegram and sign up. This extreme of “boring” applications is a part of the tech universe where things are not exciting. However, they may still be meaningful (i.e., solve a real problem), and they are most definitely doable because the technology is commoditized, stable, proven, and available.

On the other extreme of the tech universe, we will find exciting technologies. So exciting that they hold the promise of changing everything (and will eventually only solve a fraction of the original promise.)  At this extreme, we find “Deep Tech.”  Quantum Computing, Synthetic Biology, gene editing systems, and advanced materials, to name just a few examples. This stretch of the universe tries to solve problems so complex that only new and futuristic technologies have a chance to provide a solution. Some of these problems are so complex that a combination of several “Deep Tech” technologies must come together for a solution to arrive. If you are looking to invest in the far future, these technologies and their applications of “making the next better iteration” should interest you. But be warned, while most things on this edge of the universe are exciting and try to solve meaningful problems, none are doable; you can’t use Quantum Computing to automatically predict your happiness level in 2021, for example (actually, for that, all you have to do is look at 2020 and take an educated guess).

So if “technology” is such an excellent portal for “creating the next better iteration,” also known as “innovation,” we have a problem. On one extreme, we have the boring stuff, which may be meaningful and doable, while at the other extreme we have the fascinating stuff, that may be meaningful but is not doable yet.  

So, what’s in the middle?

In the middle, we will find technologies that are exciting, meaningful, and doable. If you are looking to create the “next better iteration” and innovate in 2021, here is the framework I follow:

Decide on which problem to solve

Most solutions in the market fail for lack of product-market fit. In other words: that thing you think will change the world? Nobody needs it. Sad, but true. There are many ways to evaluate if anyone needs your product or solution before you go into the effort of building it (and hiring a team, and finding a budget, and branding, marketing, etc.). But one thing is for sure; this solution needs to solve a real problem, also referred to as “friction.” And if you can show that you can solve this problem in a better way, you are at least at the start of the right path. As I’ve said above, problems persist, so many issues can benefit from a better solution. 

Ask these two questions

Here, the three-way split of the tech universe will become useful, specifically the technologies which are exciting, meaningful, and doable.  Remember the sandals and horse example from above? Every time a new technology becomes available (meaning that it is solid enough to handle delivering a solution), it is a beautiful opportunity for innovators to ask two questions:

  1. Can we use this new technology to solve an old problem in a better way?  Consider everything that has already been done, can it be done in a better way with the new available technologies?
  2. Can we use this technology to solve a problem that could not be solved before?  Every industry has those nagging problems that could not be solved.  With the new available technologies, can we finally solve these nasty problems?

In my opinion, these two questions are the foundation of using technology for innovation,  for finding the next better iteration. But which technology should you use?

Identify which technologies are the best fit  

It shouldn’t be the dull side of the scale, and if you don’t want to wait ten years, it shouldn’t be technologies on the far exciting-yet-not-doable side of the scale either. You are looking for new technologies that open up the opportunity for advancing how things are done for meaningful topics and are at the same time feasible.

What technologies qualify? IoT, AI, ML, some aspects of blockchain, and some XR elements (AR, VR, MR). There is further segmentation within these technologies, as some parts of IoT, for example, are already deep in the “boring” side (simple wearables, for example), while others are still under development. Understanding the current state of tech, which aspects are exciting, can solve meaningful problems, and are doable demands research, especially as the goalposts continuously move. However, it is a fundamental step in the process if you want to use technology as a portal for innovation. In my work, my colleagues and I have been investing the time necessary to identify the maturity level of subsegments of each of these technologies and define the highest demand use cases these technologies can deliver. It’s a considerable effort, but it provides excellent results in marrying problems and technologies to develop better solutions. 

Just coming up with great ideas out of thin air is most difficult. People often say, “think outside of the box,” but that’s like trying to breathe in outer space. What experienced innovators know is that you need to think inside the box. The more constrained and defined the problem, the more you are pressured to use available tools to solve a problem and the easier it is to innovate. To help and constrain the problem and innovate with more ease identify the problem you want to solve in a better way, or solving the problem that no one was able to solve yet, by looking at the  technologies that are exciting, meaningful, and doable to support the development and delivery of your solution.

By focusing on the right problem, asking the right question, and leveraging exciting, meaningful, and doable technologies, innovating in 2021 will be easier and more successful.

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