Innovative Products vs. Sustaining Products

A series of blog posts on innovation based on my interpretation of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen


So let’s first talk about sustaining versus disruptive technologies… they are not one and the same, are not developed by the same type of people, nor are they rewarded the same way by “the system.” How and Why?

You might think innovative products receive applause right off the bat… guess what? They don’t. They’re usually drowned in murmurs and rumors of failure, mostly because members of your organization do not know how to handle innovation (successful or not) in an organization, mostly because innovation makes people uncomfortable.

So what is the difference?

Sustaining Technologies

  • Improve the performance of established products or capabilities
  • Follow the dimensions of what mainstream customers want (or say they want)
  • Follow principles of what has been historically valued (aka not new, culture-disrupting or “out of left field”)

Let’s go back to our Honda anecdote at the top of the post… Honda was trying to sell a small dirtbike to compete in a market with the likes of Harley Davidson and other (very American) over the road cycles. They were trying to force their product into a sustaining technology role.

Disruptive Technologies

  • Innovations result in worse performance in the near term. Failure is intrinsic to success.
  • Underperform established products in mainstream markets but have other features that fringe customers value.
  • Cheaper, simpler, more convenient to use .
  • The ultimate uses for disruptive tech are unknown in advance.

Markets for disruptive technologies are oftentimes hard to articulate, if they even exist in articulat-able form at all. Markets sometimes follow these disruptive technologies by emerging from success that was completely unanticipated. This is obviously something senior management doesn’t plan for- because they can’t. Not in the traditional sense, anyways.

Innovative and disruptive products oftentimes come by watching how people use products, rather than listening to what they say.

This is where user-centered design can go a bit awry, in my opinion…. what happens when the user can’t really articulate what they need, let alone articulate what the problem is that they are facing in the first place?

Market Need vs Technological Improvement

Tech shops in the DoD (and many other places in government) are oftentimes placed in the position of “making tools for the customer” or the end user- wherever that end user might sit. The purpose of the tech/dev (heck, even data science team) is not to innovate, but to create what customers say they want or need. Success is determined (rather than in revenue) by how many briefings the technology appears in, how many users ultimately are reported to use the tool (notice I didn’t say “actually use the tool”) and how many kudos come from the top of some chain of command. In the commercial world, the same applies. Leading firms’ most profitable customers do not want to use products based on disruptive tech- at least not initially. The heavy users of a disruptive app might not even appear to use it until much, much later.

This comes down to what type of firm/ entity produces innovative products- and it is usually not the most established leading firms on the block. Translate this to DoD or government speak- it might not be the leading agency, unit, or department that comes up with the innovative ideas. It’s the small, agile newcomers on a shoestring budget. Or maybe it’s even a band of engineers at established firms that put code together using bootlegged resources. This is how new companies (or in our case, startups taking IP out of initial government relationships) form.

The opportunity to self organize and branch off is not really present in government units, departments or agencies. This leads to a ton of innovative talent effectively leaving the federal servant role and changing to the defense contractor or startup role. But this post is not talent focused- rather, it is product focused.

So if truly innovative products are almost always destined to fail at least once, address fringe users initially and are designed for a market that doesn’t even exist yet, how can that type of product be translated to work in the government space?

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