Why keeping ahead in tech can leave you behind the competition

By: Ali Azeem, Lead Inventor, ?What If!

Talk to most agencies these days, and they’ll tell you the future of the world is all about new tech. That every great idea is a site, or an app, or a smart device — and that digital innovation is the only way to grow in a rapidly changing world.

Big companies are often just as bought into this idea. Rushing forward with blinkers on, teams from all industries are obsessed with the idea of doing something new. With more opportunities than ever before, the draw of what’s technologically possible has taken over — but is this always a good thing?

Why digital isn’t the right start point, even if it’s the right answer

There’s no doubt that keeping ahead with new technology can unlock big opportunities for most companies. It’s a vital component for any business’s future. However, when it becomes the default answer to creating new products, it can lead to innovation for the sake of innovation. Companies start to focus on the Art of the Possible, rather than creating a genuine benefit to customers.

An example of this is Lynx Stream, which provides a live stream of your night out using pictures, tweets, and geotracking. It’s an interesting and novel idea, but it’s not what people actually want from their deodorant brand. It’s no surprise that the idea ended up being a costly stinker.

Lynx is of course not the only company to suffer these problems. Around 80% of branded apps have been downloaded fewer than 1,000 times. Considering the investments made, this should be a wakeup call.

Starting with the end in mind, not the means

For all those getting it wrong, there are also companies that get it right. A great recent example of this is one companies’ answer to the quest for clean water; a problem that impacts around 10% of the world’s population every day. There are many technical solutions that have popped up, like mWater, an app that helps users find safe drinking water in their area. But, one solution takes a much simpler approach.

The Q Drum is a low cost and durable water container that can be rolled instead of being carried

The Q-Drum uses one of the oldest innovations known to man, the wheel, to vastly reduce the number of trips to water wells whilst simultaneously decreasing the effort required. It’s a great example of how focusing on people and usability can bring about real, meaningful impact.

All of this is not to say that digital is unimportant. It’s one of the areas businesses need to focus on to add value to customers. The problem exists when companies assume the answer has to be in the digital world to the exclusion of all else.

How to avoid the digital trap

The key to success is to be obsessed with customer problems, and not technological solutions. This requires keeping a holistic approach to invention, making sure that customer insight is driving the ideas, rather than thinking in terms such as ‘digital first’.

On a practical level, take a good look at what you’re developing, and check that it’s solving actual problems. Sometimes the difference between mediocrity and greatness can be the smallest detail, led by a deeper understanding of the customer. By keeping an eye on what people want, you’ll be able to use digital in a way that genuinely adds value as well as finding non-digital solutions to customer problems.

There’s an old saying that “necessity is the mother of great invention”. Maybe that’s a better place to start than “what’s possible”.

If you’d like to know more about how to develop a more holistic approach to innovation in your business, please contact Ali.Azeem@whatifinnovation.com and follow us on twitter @whatifglobal.