My guess is that while founders seek recognition, making a top 10 list of the worst tech innovations of this century probably isn’t the type of recognition they would have in mind.
But understanding why the MIT Technology Review chose these 10 innovations may help you avoid making the next such list. Premature scaling, lack of customer discovery, and applying outdated methods led to some of the worst innovations.
Here’s the list:
- Google Glass
- Electronic voting
- One laptop per child
- CRISPR babies
- Data trafficking
- Plastic coffee pods
- Selfie stick
What did all these failures have in common? They were built by an outmoded, stealth mode where technologists labored in secret to perfect their products then, and only then did they seek out customers for their inventions. None of them were able to find a repeatable, sustainable, scalable business model.
In other words they were solutions in search of a problem, an issue I often see in the engineering-driven teams I mentor. Those teams live in fear that someone will steal their idea, when the reality is only if their idea is successful will they have something to fear and that’s the copying of their idea. No mistake, there were brilliant and successful inventors behind these products, like Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. And I’m sure that Google put its best and brightest behind Google Glass. Interestingly both products live on in tiny niches, the Segway used by security forces to get around in malls; Google Glass being used in certain industrial assembly processes. And well I remember Nick Negroponte’s One laptop per child effort, which broke my rule about not attempting to build both breakthrough hardware and breakthrough software at the same time – fight the innovation battle on a single front.
Here are the tenets of the lean startup development methodology which has superseded the top ten’s reliance on the waterfall method. The waterfall method is strictly linear and moves step by step from product requirements to design, to implementation, to testing to maintenance. Here’s the tenets of the agile development methodology, now promoted by Stanford’s Steve Blank, Harvard’s Eric Reis, and MIT’s Bill Aulet according to Inc. author Sean Wise, in his Inc. article MIT Just Announced the Top 10 Worst Tech Innovations of the 21st Century. Here’s What They All Have in Common.
- Get out of the building. One of my favorite mentoring maxims is “Inside this conference room all we have are opinions, facts are to be found outside the building.” This means conducting lots of face-to-face meetings with prospective users to understand their problems and needs and discover how your product solution will fit with a prospect’s problem.
- Share everywhere. One way to help ensure that there’s a market for what you are building is to share what you are doing with early adopters, Only by making your development process public can you attract early adopters who are willing to work with you because they see the value in the product you are building.
- Get a minimum viable product. “At the heart of the Lean Startup method is the idea that “done today beats perfect tomorrow.” The old notion that companies only have one chance to make a first impression is replaced with the idea that users benefit through early collaboration, and it is better to release an ugly prototype today than to wait for months until it is perfect.” I’m a heretic here as I believe it is much more important to build a minimum remarkable product. In the brutal battle for attention making your product remarkable is far more important than making it barely able to survive!
- Build, measure, learn. As Bill Sahlman, professor of entrepreneurship at The Harvard Business School told me decades ago, “Startups are a succession of small experiments.” It’s not hard convincing MIT students and alumni to use the scientific method in building their ventures!
- Pivot. Pivoting means changing one of the core elements of your venture – see the business model canvas for what those elements are. I’m of the opinion that founders are a bit too quick to pivot and pivoting has become glib. Change should be driven by the results of your testing only, not because “hey, everyone pivots.”
- Continuous deployment. This is something that can easily be done today with software or services, but it’s not so easy with hardware. Too many people assume that all startups are software companies – there are dozens of VCs, especially those in healthcare and biotech who can explain to you that is not the case! Building a prototype and iterating on the prototype before going on to building the full product is the closest you can come to continuous deployment if you aren’t a software developer.
- Split testing. A/B testing is the best way to win an argument. Where there is a difference of opinion about features, functions or other major aspects of a product testing two (an no more than two) versions against each other will enable data-driven decisions. Note that A/B testing should also be used in marketing campaigns; it’s been a staple of direct mail marketing for decades.
- No more business plans. The business plan died an unmourned death a number of years ago, replaced by the pitch deck and the business model canvas. This is one death I rejoiced in. No one ever read those 20-page business plans and by the time they were written they were obsolete. The business model canvas and a well thought out presentation can both be modified quickly based on prospect, customer, partner, and investor feedback.
Keeping your product secret until it’s ready to launch is a good formula for failure even though it might not be a guarantee you will make Technology Review’s next list of great ideas that didn’t make it as successful products. Don’t use the 20th century’s waterfall product development to build 21st century products.