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Protect your outlier innovators.

Here’s one for executives of technology companies, or any company with next generation products in mind.  As your business grows more complex and there are more employees to manage and more customers to care for, slowly you will notice that more and more time of your chief innovation officer or system architect or R&D department is spent focused upon enhancements in response to needs of the user base.

The company’s most valuable technical visionary, the person tasked with staying out in outlierinnovatorsfront of new technologies, developing the next generation of new products, and thinking “a mile above the box” is drawn into working on projects that are incremental to the product and to the existing business.  Often he or she will approach you and state that the work has become more boring, and that there is no time left for creative thinking or next generation experimentation and development.

[Email readers, continue here…]  That’s one scenario. In many companies, there are people who are quiet geniuses, wanting to work on projects outside of the daily focus of the department or company.  Managers sometimes view this behavior as non-strategic or wasteful, and even sometimes will isolate or reject these outside thinkers outright.

Or finally, you may want to start a project using the next generation of tools to produce an entirely new product – but your development resources are all tied up with projects to enhance existing products.  Whichever of the three scenarios may apply to you, it is a red flag for your future if you condone the status quo, and allow the company to devote all of its resources to existing products and simple enhancements.  Your best creative thinkers will leave you, looking for more challenges than you can offer.  Your competitors may already be working on the next generation of product, as you remain stuck in the mud, even if focused upon serving the customer base with outstanding service and rapid feature rollout.

It is up to you to decide if research and development for advanced or next generation products is a strategic priority for you and your company.  If so, you have a duty to protect these future-focused developers or architects, removing or reducing the pressure of reactionary development work, and isolating them in a space that prevents constant interruption by others focused upon day-to-day work.

Technology companies are prime targets for this problem.  Every six to ten years, there is an entirely new platform to focus upon for the next generation of products.  Just think of the computer and software fields.  First there were mainframes, followed by minicomputers, then client-server systems, then peer-to-peer networks, then the Internet, mobile devices, cloud computing, and now mesh networks.  Each generation required new tools, rewrites of software, creation of new user interfaces.

And in each generation, there are dominant players from the past generation that fade as new companies not inhibited by the demands of their user base leap beyond the last generation’s leaders with new systems for the new age.  Leaders of significant size are sometimes made irrelevant over time, or pivot into service organizations, or absorbed into growing next generation companies.

What happened to Wang, Sperry-Univac, Burroughs-Unisys, DEC, RCA, and hundreds of early generation leaders?  Their CEOs did not provide enough of a safe environment and enough resources to their creative geniuses to make the leap into that next generation.

It is a cost of doing business that you cannot ignore.  Not only providing resources for next generation development, but protecting the people performing those development tasks should be one of your strategic priorities.

  • As a risk-mitigaton measure, that’s why we developed the platform that allows Vendors to upgrade or get a feel for the total market need directly from Customers, with no weigy-board or AI tricks. So far, we’ve got 271 Million popular products indexed [as many as Amazon/eBay carry] for Customers to improve, find, and review.

    We must be doing something right with Customers, as we can’t keep our servers from crashing.

  • Michael O'Daniel

    A couple of observations from someone who has been down this path:

    1. Understand that some of the new explorations will fail. That does not mean you shouldn’t keep trying. More can be learned from failure than from success.

    2. When you do identify a new product / direction, don’t make the mistake of betting the farm on that offering. Make sure your existing customers remain happy with you and continue to be serviced properly — do not pull valuable resources away from customer care / sales support, otherwise you run the risk of impacting your current revenue stream.

    3. Don’t put too much stock in what the analysts are saying, e.g., “You’ve got to develop a product in this area because it’s the wave of the future! Everyone else is doing it and you’ll be left behind!” Keep in mind that the purpose of gathering a herd is to drive them to slaughter. Unfortunately your board and other investors can often be unduly influenced by the analysts and their herd instinct, and it can be a challenge to stand up to them.

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