Why hype technology is killing innovation

Innovation is about doing something new, something which breaks away from the existing norms. These norms might be process, policy, organisational structure, business models or culture, and changing any of these is challenging. Innovation fights against the desire of communities or organisations to have stability — this is why it’s so hard, and so elusive.

There is huge pressure on the leaders of organisations to be innovative. Companies need to keep ahead in competitive markets, and institutions need to reinvent themselves to meet the raised expectations of the public and maintain their trust. This pressure manifests in the decisions of senior leaders who must be seen to be doing something make their organisations innovative. This pressure too often leads to an innovation facade — the appearance of innovation without changing anything that matters.

In the short term, an innovation facade can be indistinguishable from valuable innovation. In an industry culture of hype, reputation and unicorn hunting, creating the appearance of innovation can be can be a good thing — it helps with hiring and retaining talent, builds trust in the short term, and attracts investment. But over time, it won’t produce the intended effects of innovation — fundamentally changing the ways things work.

Hype culture in technology — the rampant and sometimes indiscriminate promotion of particular technologies (blockchain, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, 3D printing) — creates pressure on leaders to succumb to innovation facades: making investments in the Next Big Thing. Major technologies consultancies or ‘solution providers’ know this space is a major money-spinner — the reputational uplift of appearing to be innovative far outweighs the reputational impact of technology failing to deliver. This is particularly true in an industry where failure is still largely unpublicised.

There are good ways to encourage innovation in organisations, but these will struggle to compete with hype technology because they are challenging forms of change:

  • Bringing new skills into organisations. Can lead to difficult changes to pay frameworks and working patterns, and can displace existing workers.
  • Encouraging bold leadership. Bold decisions to make changes to processes, policies and team structures are often resisted by organisational antibodies, with unpredictable side-effects.
  • Allowing experimentation with funding models to create more team autonomy. Accountants, auditors and finance professionals are typically change-averse.
  • Do hypothesis-driven delivery, which encourages the measurement of value for high-risk work. Hypotheses with a reasonable chance of failure often don’t make for a good story for those with the power to invest.

Hype technology can cut through this by offering the appearance of an exciting paradigm shift, whilst not really changing anything. Whilst still a risky investment in terms of outcomes, the buzz of innovation in the organisation can be felt almost immediately.

But introducing hype technology for its own sake will have side-effects. Teams who understand technology will feel disenfranchised when the solution has been decided before the problem identified. Solution-lead approaches go against prevailing thinking in technology such as user-centred design, product management, and agile or lean methodologies. In the longer-term, organisations run a significant risk of being left with ‘white elephants’ like Kodak bitcoin mining or IBM Watson.

Behind the facade, most hype technologies are important technological developments, but they need to be added to the toolkit, and chosen for use when they’re the right fit. To make decisions to use new or emerging technology:

  • Consult relevant experts. It is important to consult those who understand the technology as a practitioner. For example assessing a good use-case for machine learning will require skills such as data analysis, statistics and software engineering.
  • Do the basics. Organisations burdened by legacy technology or poor quality data may not have the prerequisites for using the newest technology at scale. These underlying issues could be a higher priority investment.
  • Measure the value. Ensure you have a hypothesis to test, and can measure the value of what you create with the new technology.
  • Iterate. Find ways to test new technology at low cost, allowing you to determine its value at lower risk. Where relevant, this can also give you time to nurture the necessary skills and knowledge in your organisation.
  • Be market savvy. It is crucial to understand why hype technology is being promoted, and what vested interests suppliers have— this can allow you to exploit markets, not be exploited by them.
  • Understand the domain. To understand how this technology could be received by users, and what possible side-effects could be introduced.
  • Consider sustainability. Hype technologies can be high risk, where you may not always be able to rely on the companies or communities that support them, and maintenance costs may be poorly understood.

Ultimately, simplicity remains one of the most important design principles for technology, and hype technology is rarely simple. A lot of the world’s problems are still best solved with an SQL database.