How the Hype Cycle Can Help You Make Sense of the Future

While working on an analysis for a client, attempting to assess the key trends that will shape the future of apparel, my mind turns to how an emerging technology in any industry can rise, fall, and eventually succeed. To help understand how trends like artificial intelligence, blockchain, or big data will affect any client, we often turn to the “hype cycle.”

Developed by the American research firm Gartner, this framework offers a compelling tool to help you make sense of the future by avoiding the two mistakes so many companies make as they devise their strategies: getting overly excited about a new technology too early or discounting a technology just as its about to change the world.

The hype cycle provides a view of how a technology can evolve over time via a lifecycle with five key phases:

Phase 1: Technology Trigger

The cycle kicks off when a technology is conceptualized, triggering hype and publicity. Often a usable product does not yet exist.

Phase 2: Peak of Inflated Expectations

Early adopters implement the technology, with results ranging from successful to unsuccessful.

Phase 3: Trough of Disillusionment

The technology’s flaws and failures cause public interest to decline. Some investors and adopters drop out; others agree to continue with the contingency that the problems will be addressed.

Phase 4: Slope of Enlightenment

As the technology’s strengths begin to take shape, adopters start to understand its potential and how it can benefit them. More and more companies implement the technology

Phase 5: Plateau of Productivity

The technology is fully understood and widely adopted. Its mainstream applicability pays off.

To see how this model works, let’s look at 3D printing.

3D printing

Phase 1: In 2010, early talk and prototypes of 3D printers kicked off the cycle.

Phase 2: In the excitement, a flood of companies implemented the technology, with most of them failing due to their severe underestimation of how difficult and expensive it would be to build the hardware.

Phase 3: By 2014, consumer interest was waning due to the high price tag, media scandals and a lack of printable content.

Phase 4: While 3D printing aimed at consumers began its downfall, professional 3D printing was taking shape as engineers, product designers, architects, researchers and more discovered that 3D printing could be used for rapid prototyping.

Phase 5: Professional 3D printing is now in high use by mainstream companies. And as prices decrease and printable content becomes more widely available, consumer 3D printing is taking off as well.

Now the hype cycle has been used to help predict how adoptions will shape the external environment. But it is equally intriguing as a tool for guiding your efforts to drive innovation from WITHIN your organization … to help you more skillfully gain traction for your ideas and shorten the internal adoption curve.

Shortening the internal adoption curve

Approaches to understanding how innovations diffuse, like the hype cycle, focus exclusively on the external environment. They look at how users adopt a new technology. But they rarely address what corporate innovators whom I have interviewed most often complain about: the internal adoption curve. In order for your organization to even have a chance at building adoption for a new technology in the market, it must first embrace the technology internally enough to launch it.

The hype cycle I think explains why so many companies struggle to embrace new innovations.

You see, corporations have longer memories than markets. If a technology hits the “trough of disillusionment” out there in the market, people forget about it. The pioneer who pursued the idea and garnered great interest only to find their technology was ahead of its time is quickly forgotten.

So when someone comes along later, after the technology is improved enough to actually live up to its promise, they can be seen as almost starting from scratch. Apple seems to understand this dynamic well.

Apple’s iPhone rose from the trough

When Apple launched the iPod (which later became the iPhone, arguably one of the most transformative innovations of recent times), it did not create brand-new technology. Rather, it patched together technologies that had fallen into the “trough of disillusionment.”

MP3 players had been introduced by companies like Creative Zen but failed to make the traction the market expected. Streaming services like Napster seemed to be gaining traction only to be crushed into “disillusionment” by the music industry. Apple combined these two technologies, which the market had grown disillusioned with, and turned them into what we now know as the iPhone.

It’s complicated

With external innovation, a new innovator can emerge and essentially say, “Those guys were wrong. I have a new way of approaching this.” But when you are seeking to innovate from within an established organization, that “failed innovator” you are seeking to replace was your coworker or, even more complicated, your boss.

No one enjoys admitting they are wrong. When your innovation’s success depends, essentially, on the idea that your colleague’s or boss’s attempt at driving an early version of that innovation was wrong, you can expect to get, at the very least, some pushback. At the worst, you will face outright sabotage.

Innovations are not developed. They escape.

At a recent workshop I delivered in Los Angeles on driving innovation from within, one participant said, “In my company, innovations are not developed. They escape.” The only way innovations actually make it through the company into the market is by escaping the internal barriers to innovation.

In other words, the corporate structure does not help innovation – it hinders it. And a key reason for this can be explained by the hype curve.

At first, your company will grow excited about your idea. If that excitement grows to too high a pitch, then expectation will exceed what your innovation is ready to deliver. Then “disillusionment” will set in. If you, or someone else, later tries to revive the promise of your innovation, perhaps because the technology has finally caught up with the hype, you will find powerful people embedded in your organization who will say, “We tried that before … it didn’t work.”

In an open market, those prior innovators may be lost in an ocean of innovators, but in a company those people are your bosses and colleagues. They may control the purse strings.

Conclusion

I hope the hype cycle can help you better understand why the challenge of driving innovation from within established organizations is unique, and help you make smarter, more strategic choices. Here is what you can do to put it to work:

  1. Figure out where your innovation is on the hype cycle.
  2. Assess what the probability is that it will make it through the cycle.
  3. Then carefully manage the expectations of those around you so they don’t get excited too early or grow disillusioned just when the innovation is about to break through.
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