Technology, A Definition

Last January Christoper Cummings asked if he could interview me for his blog, Product Management Meets Pop Culture. In the resulting interview, “Product Manager Interview: David Locke,” published in early February of 2010, we discussed leadership and the need to maintain a proactive time stance. My response to a question on innovation and technology was disproportionately long, so it was omitted. We are putting that response to use in this post. Enjoy.

Thanks Chris!


Q.) You’ve said, innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “new” or “technology”. What does it mean, and how can product management best contribute to bring innovation to the market?

Innovation not being new, did I say that? That might be the hardest aspect of this question.

I’ll start with my definition of “technology,” and notice we are not talking about high tech, or some prioritization scheme making some things more tech than others. Technology is the application of thought. When I was fifteen, a guy on a job with me, showed me how to use a shovel. That was knowledge. That was thought. That was technology. It made the work easy. Everyone thinks. Every functional discipline person, every business unit person thinks. They think within the contexts of their work, the functional culture of their professions. They work within the definitions they learned in school, life, and the workplace. Some of those definitions are undergoing adoption as we speak. One paradigm replaces another, one paradigm succeeding, another one fading.

An innovation is an idea. Innovations are either divergent or convergent. They tend to diverge, and then converge as they gain acceptance. Notice that I didn’t say anything about continuous, discontinuous, radical, disruptive, sustaining, or incremental. That lexicon gets attached later when the birthed idea is commercialized. The nascent divergent or convergent innovation becomes the model, for a commercialization that gives rise to a view that is continuous or discontinuous based on the existence of a market or its non-existence. This determination is where most innovations die. Some see the non-existence of the market as a reason not to invest, based on their previous attempts to push innovations into the market using go-to-market approaches that consistently work for continuous innovation, but fail consistently for discontinuous innovation. Discontinuous is a go-to-market mechanism.

Even a discontinuous innovation, seen as radical can be reframed to seem continuous. Object-oriented was radical, became a near cousin of functional programming, and finds itself being once again radicalized, and in some quarters being trashed in a return to a strict functional programming.

Only later does a discontinuous innovation become a disruptive innovation. This happens as the slope of the S-curve or price-performance curve of the innovation exceeds that of the earlier innovation, which in turn causes the adoption of the discontinuous innovation which drains the previously accepted conceptualization of its market.

The existence of a market, allows you to go straight to that market without dealing with technology adoption. If the existing market is a vertical market, enter the vertical market. Likewise, early mainstream, late mainstream, information appliance, or embedded markets.

Don’t talk to me about getting your product adopted when you mean getting it sold. Technologies are adopted. Products and services are sold. Products and services are instances of the technology, and are intended to get the technology adopted. Devices or form factors are instances as well. That those products and services are sold just provides us with cash and financial market glory. Your technologies, or those of other vendors that you use in your products or to provide your services determines your place on the technology adoption lifecycle.

Ideas are technology, or the application of thought, but not necessarily high tech. Ideas are everywhere in our organizations. Some are “in-offer,” some are not, or not yet “in offer.” Some ideas will never be “in-offer.” Yes, art and design guys have ideas. Yes, managers have ideas. Most of the talk these days seems to be about usurping the engineer’s place in innovation. I get tired of the fight for supremacy in the innovation sphere. Ideas have their place across the organization, and across the technology adoption lifecycle. Our businesses and products are not all in the same place, space, or timeframe. The core competencies of our firms vary. Those core competencies drive how our firms value ideas. Corporate cultures determine whose ideas are more important and conversely whose ideas are not important. This effect of corporate culture is unfair, and yes, costly to our firms, and deadly to our offer components. Offers tend to expand in the late market.

Not all of our products are about high tech carriers or protocols. Some products live on top of the technical carriers, and at the core may be functionality and technology derived from a functional domain, which I call “content,” or “the carried,” not necessarily text, graphics, sound, or video. A cost accounting program is application or carrier that carries cost accounting content. Like back in data structures class, where I used to see the data structure mixed into the other code. Keep your carrier and content separate. Innovations originate in both carrier and carried content.

Ideas are concepts. Concepts live in conceptualizations. We don’t really pay enough attention to concepts as product managers. Concepts lead to terminology, but we skip this stuff and move directly to UML.  In the case of carried content, I have to ask why we let developers create the terminology. Slow down, deal with the overhead, because it is rich—rich as in profitable.

Lastly, what do I mean when I said that innovation is not necessarily new. When I talk about divergent or convergent ideas, at that time they are new. That may have been years and years ago, long before we commit them to code. But, divergent means moving away from old ideas, and convergent means mixing a bunch of old ideas together that have never been mixed in that manner before. Ideas are concepts. A concept by itself cannot be explained until it is surrounded by or socialized by a collection of other existing (old) concepts.

An Apple is a Pear, but not pear shaped, but…, but…, and they keep doctors away. That apple is a collection of concepts. As a pear, the apple concept converges with pear concept, then with each of those “buts” that apple concept diverges itself from the pear concept, and obviously diverges from the doctor concept.

At the end of the happy hour, this old-new business is embodied in something called the old-new contract. New, or previously unknown, things cannot be explained except in the context of the old, or known. But, doesn’t that seem like an innovation must be new. Not quite.

The new can likewise recontextualize the old, so you end up with the old-new, and new-old. The new can contextualize other new ideas. And, old ideas can recontextualize old ideas. Neo-classical economics is really classical economics reconfigured by the some later economists in the Austrian school of economics, but neither are new, which would be behavioral economics.

Still, there is another reason why innovations are not necessarily new, and this stems from what happens to get an idea published in a peer-edited journal. A creator knows people who come to be apostles and who participate in the further development of the idea in an invisible college, which means, these days, that they exchange email. If you’ve ever read a research paper seriously, you’ve seen bibliographies that mention unpublished papers, letters, and such—the stuff of the invisible colleges. The creator and the apostles write journal articles and they get turned down. They go unpublished. Eventually, the creator’s idea gains credence with enough people in the creator’s discipline that they get a paper published. From there we read about it, and some things, hey, we could use this idea in our product. Then, they put it in the product without asking, without getting a lawyer, without a license, and nobody notices until the lawsuit decades later. An idea is old before you ever know it. The internet can get ideas out into the public earlier. But, that is just communications, rather than adoption or acceptance. Still, it gets the ideas into our products and services, but that lack of adoption or acceptance represents a risk in our efforts to get the technology adopted in the market, or our products based on the idea sold.

Product managers need to realize that the decisions about how to commercialize a innovation may have been wrong. If you find yourself going nowhere in the market, go back and ask if a market exists. If it doesn’t, set about creating a market using Moore’s process, the whole process. You may be forced to go headlong into a non-adopting market, but splitting your forces won’t kill you, you are already dead.

Product managers need to know what innovations are entering into their offers. Letting a innovation into your offer might motivate a contributor.



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