LESSONS FROM THE SLINKY
Guest Commentary: With so many new technologies and dazzling applications, tech-based innovation seems like an 80-armed octopus reaching in all directions at once. But there’s actually a pattern to what’s happening and a road map for creating winning value propositions in a fast-changing world.
With the kind of honesty born of a cold beer on a hot day, one of the most tech-savvy innovators I know dropped a surprising confession the other day.
He said tech-based innovation has at long last confounded him, as it no longer has a singular thematic tailwind pushing it along. Pressed to explain, he eloquently summed up 30 years in 30 seconds.We’ve cycled through a series of dominant themes, gradually giving way to one another. First it was Moore’s Law of the falling cost of computing power, which provided a tidy summation of technology’s trajectory to permeate life. Next came Convergence, prescribing a path for putting all that power to work in multipurpose devices. Then came Social Connectivity as the next “It Girl” innovation vector to carry us forward. Progress was never one dimensional, but it always had an identifiable center.
But, of late, tech innovation has behaved like an 80-armed octopus, chaotically reaching in dozens of directions at once. What’s the dominant tailwind? Is it “betweening” plays, like dropping a tablet somewhere between the phone and computer? Location-based services? Horde-sourcing? Cloud power? (in)Security? Augmented reality? Kinetic control? Micro-conversations?
The answer, of course, is all of the above, which is highly interesting but thoroughly unhelpful. Whether technology is your core business or you’re hoping to use it as a catalyst for your nontech business, how do you set yourself up for success when the patterns are so scattered?
To try to make sense of what’s happening and how to win amidst the chaos, the perfect meta-metaphor of tech innovation may be the humble Slinky. Yes, that quintessentially low-tech, one-piece toy, invented in 1945 by Richard and Betty James, may be the ideal encapsulation of how to build lucrative tech-based innovation in an all-of-the-above era.
Think of each new capability that technology brings into play as just adding another loop to the front of the coil. GPS capability, kinetic control, app flexibility, micro-messaging, horde-sourcing, cloud power: Don’t think of them as separate vectors, but as parts of a growing whole of possibility.
From there, just think about how the Slinky moves.
Grab the outermost coil and pull it in any new direction and what happens? All the other coils very quickly snap in behind. As the baseline set of capabilities at the disposal of any new tech-based product, venture or experience gets bigger and bigger over time, this slinky pattern is going to define the way the biggest new value propositions are ignited, shaped, and monetized.
The big winners will be those who focus not on the value of the single new piece of capability, but on the bigger whole with the new piece in it.
Samsung’s LCD Division (see editor’s note below), for instance, is making big inroads into the vending industry with an idea called uVending that’s a classic piece of Slinky-esque thinking. uVending is driven not by the singular impact a state-of-the-art touchscreen could have on the once-moribund vending industry. Instead, it gets its pop through the value created by marrying up a screen, a chip set capable of supporting a new breed of cutting-edge interfaces, and two-way wireless connectivity that accepts content feeds from a marketer’s headquarters, then pushes real-time sales data to the guy driving the restock truck.
The touchscreen may be the most visible new thing in play, but it wasn’t the basis of the value proposition, which derived from bundling technologies into a transformational whole.
Across the platform at the train station, look at what came of E Ink. Embraced as the potential salvation of a publishing industry on the wane, it catalyzed the first e-readers. But the bigger creation of consumer transformation and economic value came about when the Slinky of other capabilities came in behind it. E Ink showed that the world was ready for electronic readers, but most of what makes the iPad so magical as a reading experience (and, of course, much more) is stuff that had been around for ages and is now integrated as a complete experience. Whether or not the e-reader’s sizable following is here to stay, the Slinky has spoken.
These are simple examples to make a simple point in a complicated world.
The great tech-based value propositions and experiences ahead of us won’t be one-dimensional or easily tucked under a singular, simple theme the way they once were.
They will use what’s new as a catalyst for a tug in a different direction. They’ll monetize it all when the vast and growing stable of capabilities that already existed get snapped in behind, adding up to a compelling new whole.
If Mr. Potato Head looks befuddled, it’s because he’s all about the individual pieces and how fragmented they seem. The Slinky marches on.
by Mark Payne
Portfolio.com, June 30, 2011