Bowling with a Crystal Ball: Technology Focus vs. Market Focus

Published at Innovation Excellence, October 11, 2015.

In “the innovator’s dilemma” Clayton Christensen focused on specific markets, and how technology can disrupt them.  In 1998, in an executive briefing in Stanford University he told a story about consulting to Intel executives, right after “the innovator’s dilemma” was published, and how Andrew grove, the founder and then Intel CEO said “this is not disruptive technology, but rather trivial technology with a disruptive implementation“.  Now, don’t get me wrong, both Christensen and Grove are heroes of mine, but I have to disagree with both of them.

Technology disrupts markets. I agree with that. However, when I need to decide whether to focus on a market (like Christensen does) or focus on the technology, I will focus on the technology every day of the week, and twice on Tuesday.  Focusing on a market causes you to accept “the rules of the game.”  The more you know the market, current players, current product and technologies, the more you identify with the market, to the point you may develop a “Stockholm Syndrome” with the market.  As Henry ford said, “if I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said: faster horses”.  When you are a market insider, it is hard for you to see what’s outside that has the potential to disrupt it.

Case in point: in 2007 I was the CEO of a small Voice over IP (VoIP, except that back then it was called “Internet Telephony”) company, and I visited Korea (South), meeting with the second largest competitive telephone provider to convince them that packet switching (such as VoIP) will take over from circuit switching because it is more efficient and, therefore, less expensive. They refused to listen. Mostly because they were afraid that due to lower costs–this new technology will cannibalize their business. They were correct. It did. But instead of doing it themselves–they allowed others to do it to them.

I don’t claim that technology has a higher, more important status than the market it can disrupt.  It’s the other way around.  There is no doubt that history can show plenty of examples of technologies that provided absolutely no value to the market they wished to serve, and if you can’t find examples, I would be happy to provide some… The value of technology is derived from the application or product it enables, that changes the rules of the game in the market.

And now to my disagreement with Andrew Grove.  I am a believer in attempting to disrupt markets with cutting edge technologies and not trivial ones. Trivial technologies are, well, trivial. More than anything they are predictable and somewhat obvious. It’s the cutting edge technologies, based on the fastest moving trends (such as processing power, storage capacity, silicon size, power consumption, and the like) that are less obvious and appear, incorrectly, to be almost unpredictable, simply because of the fast pace of change in them.  It’s the fastest moving technologies that enable today what could not have been conceived two years ago, and will enable in two years what cannot be imagined today.

Understanding the fastest paced technologies, and then taking an outsider look at different markets they may disrupt, identifying the new value they can bring to this markets through the introduction of new (and disruptive) products, services, or business models, is the way to go.  The focus starts with technology identification and then shifts to markets. Not the other way around.

In the diagram to the left, you can see that technology 1 will disrupt market B, much like technology 2 will disrupt market A. Classical approach warrants that you watch Market B and look for technologies that may disrupt them (such as Technology 1 at point Y). However, it is hard to find which technology has such potential. Instead, I suggest to follow Technology 1 and identify the markets it has the potential of disrupting. This is how you will identify point Y, in which it will disrupt Market B. Or follow Technology 2 and find point X, where it disrupts Market A. Follow the technology, not the Market.

The discussion and the graph are taken from my book, Bowling with a Crystal Ball: How to Predict technology trends, create disruptive implementations and navigate them through industry. Published by CreateSpace.

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