An abundance paradox: so many opportunities to innovate, yet so little demonstration of it

In his number titled Rat Race, Bob Marley once sang the following lines,

In the abundance of water,
The fool is thirsty.

I think it could apply to the world we live in at the moment.

Many observers wrote that the world is producing unprecedented amount of media at an unprecedented rate. All that information is mostly freely available. Yet it has hardly been more difficult to make proper use of such manna. Technology is evolving at such a pace that the barrier to innovation is lowering by the day. Capabilities that would sound like science-fiction just a few years back, are now becoming available at near commodity levels.

It has never been easier and cheaper to publish digital media. At the same time, long established media publishers seem to be relinquishing publishing control to new players such as Facebook, Medium or Google. I won’t even start on horrible terms such as post-truth and similar misnomers, you get the impression they’re on about some World Wrestling Entertainment show, or maybe soap operas. Quality seems to be missing when it should’ve been easier to publish truthful and newsworthy items.

It used to be very difficult and time consuming to design and build even modest web solutions, nowadays the task can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost and comparatively no time at all. And yet, many businesses are struggling to digitise their processes, take many months if not years to deploy decent solutions. We might not be learning fast enough, have our eyes on the wrong priorities, struggling to streamline our messages and get them across, falling too quickly to fads, finding it difficult to separate wheat from chaff. The reasons are varied and multiple, but it is clear that technological prowess isn’t proportionally resulting in unquestionable progress in a lot of cases.

All this, to me, point to an increasing inability to innovate and deliver value when it should have been relatively easier and cheaper to do so. Why is this happening? How come we can’t seem to do better, despite getting access to ever better and cheaper tools and learning?

I just read an article about a new uncertainty that’s going to hit businesses that ship user-facing software solutions built on the Java platform. Many who invested in building IP around user solutions, will likely face large bills or tedious legal procedures. This will come as a shock surprise to many, who never considered the scenario.

Fluff, stuff and veneer

Products can be categorised in three broad sets, based on the proportion of fluff, stuff, and veneer in their structure. This can be seen in the picture below.

distribution of fluff, stuff, and stuff

What really makes a difference is stuff, that is the true substance. Fluff is often added to help with margin. Veneer makes it easy to sell, may also help with the margin. Users are more naturally looking for (a.) type of products, but this is often not the case. Companies that offer (a.) type of products usually have more affinity with value, have more empathy, and can learn to adjust to changing times. Companies offering (b.) products also have decent chances to respond when the environment changes. However, those only dishing out (c.) products will suffer most in times of change. The latter group builds on thin air and is promptly exposed, they may be adept to fad.

What about infrastructure?

If infrastructure is at the core of what a company sells, then it may well be stuff. Even then, there is value in working out how much fluff and veneer it may contain. In other cases, if infrastructure is determined to be a key part of the differentiator, then it should still be considered as stuff. When that is also not the case, then infrastructure may well be part of fluff and should be given a lot of scrutiny. A key consideration is thus, how do you determine what is fluff, stuff or veneer? In which part are you spending most of your resources, stuff, fluff, or veneer? How do these spending proportions look like? In which one have you become very good at? These are important questions to ask.

What’s fluff for one company may be stuff or veneer for another. Other combinations apply equally. Infrastructure for one business may be veneer for another. It is quite likely that the proportions would differ significantly, even for companies serving a given market. Attempts to apply generally accepted recipes should focus around formulas and the careful gathering of input, but definitely not pre-cooked outputs that might be off in a different context.

Nimbleness

If a business strongly relies on information technology, an increasingly common case nowadays, it ought to carefully consider applying the sharing economy principles. Essentially, the path to nimbleness is paved with pay-as-you-go operating models, requiring less and less ownership of the infrastructure. The less infrastructure you own and operate, the less liability you incur, the more agile your business becomes.

Roughly, the notion of sharing economy that has taken hold in recent years, sees people increasingly ditching ownership of fluff in favour of sharing or renting. Stop owning things that may be fluff or veneer, share those instead. When applied to the context of business computing, sharing amounts to embracing cloud native solutions whereby infrastructure is put to maximum use over its allocation time.

An obvious and immediate defensive reaction I often hear is, how about vendor lock-in? That’s possibly one of the most overused red-herring these days. People are too inclined to worry, afraid of getting stuck, preferring to freeze and starve instead. That’s like worrying about your hair style while standing in the pouring rain. What’s the point in that? I don’t have enough space to discuss lock-in in this post, I’ll just say that it’s a non-issue for most businesses that find themselves on a burning platform. Even in plain sailing conditions, choice is inevitable. Whatever choice a business makes will obviously imply some kind of lock-in. Being afraid of it doesn’t change things, choosing the right kind of lock-in does. No lock-in often means going for the lowest common denominator, that should be vetted against the cost of operating such setup.

When people and companies succumb to fad, that they mostly go with the flow, there is an absence of steering. And that’s one possible reason that so few innovations are emerging out of the abundance of the opportunities created by technological progress. Likewise, the overabundance of information is creating a discernment crisis, all look the same to newcomers, experienced folks may have lapses of vigilance, deafening noise cancelling out sound judgment. Sure, we learn by experimenting, by failing as they put it. Fail fast is the motto in hip startup technology circles. But, exactly how fast should that be? At what point does it become a case of fail fast rather that an instance of quitting, abandoning? How do companies determine that it is time to fail? Some will try to copy recipes they’ve heard worked elsewhere, only to fall into a me-too trap, no realising the benefits sought after.