One of my (experienced) cycling friends once told me that on longer rides it was really important to be drinking or eating well before you get thirsty or hungry in order to keep yourself well-hydrated and you’re energy levels high. It was good advice, and something I was reminded of reading Ben Evans’ post on how technology has a habit of producing its best results just when it’s ready to be replaced:
‘The development of technologies tends to follow an S-Curve: they improve slowly, then quickly, and then slowly again. And at that last stage, they're really, really good. Everything has been optimised and worked out and understood, and they're fast, cheap and reliable. That's also often the point that a new architecture comes to replace them.’
“S-Curves” are neatly explained in this post by NOBL as:
‘…a mathematical model that describes the pattern of slow acceptance (A), explosive growth (B), and leveling off (C) that occurs with any given variable. When a new variable comes in to replace the old one, the curve begins again’.
Apparently the pattern has been found to be applicable not just to product innovation cycles but also in the context of population growth, economic trends and the spread of cancer (which I didn’t know).
We talk a lot about the need for both breakthrough as well as marginal innovation but of-course the former becomes important to focus on even before you find your market dis-intermediated or your model disrupted. It’s hard, because just before that unwanted scenario happens things may well be the best they’ve ever been. As NOBL point out jumping to the next S-curve before the existing one plateaus is challenging because companies may well find themselves in the 'dilemma zone' – the period of time when a new product or technology may be showing promise but has yet to realise it's full potential and may even be disruptive to the existing high performing product. This means running two potentially very different models within the same business which is not easy with finite resources. But it has to be done because what we’re really talking about is maintaining the long-term health of a business. Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry.