Fresh ingredients make all the difference ...
Fresh ingredients make all the difference ...

IoT Field Notes: Four Ingredients for Transformation (Pick 2!)

Summary: To get your innovation idea off the ground, there are four important ingredients that can make the transformation happen. Not all are required – but you need at least two of these to have any chance of getting things moving. If you have only one? Here are some ideas to fill the gap.

Your team is thinking about the Internet of Things and smart, connected products – a good thing, as there is lots of opportunity out there. But you are having limited success after floating a few ideas past the decision makers – a frustrating thing, you feel they just aren’t getting it.

Don’t worry, plenty of folks are experiencing the same roadblocks. We can’t all work in firms that sell in high-volume to consumers who are actively looking for the next smart gadget. Industrial IoT is loaded with great ideas, but challenged with markets, channels and customers that are conservative and slow to change.

Or so people say – but there are success stories floating around out there, stories that are validating your suspicions about the appetite for these kinds of products. And I am seeing more industries, more markets, more niche-y applications that are aggressively and successfully pulling information and technology into their success formulas. Obviously, some product teams out there are figuring out the critical recipe for getting approval, making the investment, and bringing these solutions to market.

Success patterns are emerging; one has to do with breaking through that initial resistance to change. To get an idea off the ground, there are four important ingredients that can make the transformation happen. Not all of these are required – but you need at least two of these to have any chance of getting things moving.

  • A Smart Idea: Many folks think that a unique, innovative Smart Idea is all that is required – after all, they have depth of experience in their markets and technical domains. Add in some exposure and/or experience with sensors and data analytics, and a little imagination when it comes to the power of AI and machine learning – why wouldn’t the market just fall in love with this idea? And they will review (again) the amazing tale of Steve Jobs and the iPhone, and throw in some cherry-picked stories of Disruptive Technologies. But those stories are about unicorns – relatively rare events. In the industrial world, conservative niche markets and customers can be amazingly resistant to these ideas .

Nope, this isn’t enough – we are going to have to add at least one of the following:

  • Customer Pull: Successful companies know that listening to your customers and understanding their wants and needs is table stakes for growth. When you get specific requirements (or requests) for operational / performance data that is tied to your products, you have found an ally in your drive for change. Smart leaders looking for growth cannot resist a paying customer, standing at the door with dollars in their hand, ready to buy – if we can just deliver on their requirements.
  • Competitive Threat: If you really understand the forces at play in your markets, and you are building a proper product strategy, you will learn about competitive threats. When your competition is making the move to smart, connected products before you are – and threatening to take market share – it’s easier to define the imperative, and develop at least an equivalent offering.
  • Leadership Buy-In: Of course, if you have a general manager, managing director, or president … or even a product line leader with the appropriate P&L responsibility … that has the vision and wants to make something happen – this could be your path forward. Resistance to new and different ideas will come from inside and outside of your organization, and a visionary leader can help educate and advocate.

Filling the Gaps

Again, you must have at least two of these four ingredients if you really want this product idea to take off. If you have only one – what do you do?

  • Get Alignment – Missing that critical buy-in from your leadership? You need to spend some quality time with these folks, to understand where the gap is; start by listening.

What are the critical objectives for your organization? If the focus is on cost containment, talent development, M&A – basically, everything except new product development – then why are you surprised? You must get aligned with the critical few priorities to get their attention and support.

  • Get Understanding – Another possibility here – the decision makers may have a bias against significant change in the core technology of your products. Going from the physical world of products to the virtual world of services is a wildly different engineering and operations paradigm. I call it “widgets to digits” – and it typically is a fundamentally different way of thinking … and operating … and staffing … . The technology may sound fun and look cool, but the reality can be daunting.

How to overcome this challenge? Work on clear product development and operations plans, fully loaded with the costs and the timing. Build a complete business case, that outlines the expected revenue + share gain, and hold that up against these costs. And tie it to the things your leadership values – if your ideas don’t line up with their priorities, they simply have no time or interest.

  • Get Informed – Of course, a great way to get the organization’s attention, and shift priorities to new products, is to get that “pull” from the customers, or that “push” from the competition. Do not try to bank on your smart idea, cooked up on a lab bench, to be enough. Get out there and connect with real customers, and get them involved in the design.

If you think you have the germ of a Smart Idea, build a minimum viable product – just enough work to help folks understand the direction you’re thinking – and go talk with your customers. They are immersed in challenges, the problems that you would like to solve – and they can describe the problems and make them real. Your customers will also tell you what’s right and wrong about your idea. In fact, they’ll probably tell you how to either simplify your approach, or redirect your energies and do something that they will pay for.

Don’t forget to research your competition, looking for inbound threats. If you don’t know what the other side is doing, you are destined to get blind-sided. It’s not that tough; go to a trade show and walk the aisles. Talk to your customers and ask them why they are not buying your solution over the competitor. Typically, industrial markets are fairly open with information like this, and it’s relatively easy to get a pulse on what’s happening.

  • Get Experimenting – It’s tough to manufacturer a Smart Idea out of nothing. A little curiosity and energy help, and there are plenty of entry-level tech components and tutorials to develop your understanding of what is possible. If you understand the basics of how things work, you can apply these ideas to your marketplace, your customers and your problem domain.

Remember, information and technology is changing the nature of your products, and they represent a very real risk. How can you eliminate the risk and gain approval?

# 21 May, 2018

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.