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Managing the Hype Cycle

2011 February 16
by Greg Satell

Should you believe the hype?

Hype, much like the proverbial soldier’s girlfriend, doesn’t exactly lie, but doesn’t tell the whole truth either.  We’re told our whole world will change, lots of journalists and investment bankers drive expectations further and then we are inevitably disappointed.  Only later, we find that, after all, there really was something to it all along.

Recently, someone introduced me to the Gartner Hype Cycle, which does a good job of not only describing the how hype plays out, but also tracks it and gives important insights on how to manage and profit from hyped technology.

War Games and Terminator

Back in 1983, when connections to the Internet were still mostly for hobbyists, one of the top movies was War Games.  The premise was just outlandish enough to be exciting and just believable enough to be scary.  Mathew Broderick, playing a high school prodigy trying to impress a girl, hacks into a secret military computer system and almost starts a nuclear war.

The next year saw the launch of the even more successful Terminator series, in which a computer system becomes so sophisticated that it achieves self awareness and launches a nuclear holocaust.  No longer needing humans, it builds it’s own “cyborg” robots to track down and kill what’s left of the human race.

Both movies reflected our natural tendency to admire technological advancement while at the same time fear unleashing powers we can’t control.  However, nearly 30 years later, the premises of both movies seem neither as outlandish nor quite as scary as they did at the time.

When Science Fiction Becomes Science Reality

Cyberwarfare, is indeed a reality and was used extensively by Russia against Georgia. In his book What Technology Wants, Wired founder Kevin Kelly points out that the number or transistors and links in the Internet has become comparable to the number of neurons and synapses in a human brain and that today we expect computers to be somewhat sentient.

Michio Kaku, a physicist, wrote an entire book devoted to how technologies like invisibility and teleportation are becoming possible.   Take a look here, where he explains why clean fusion is probably only 20 years away.

The fantastic future has arrived in our decidedly more mundane present.  Once outlandish ideas have changed our world and, for the most part, we’re better off for it.

The Hype Cycle Explained

The strange evolution from the improbable to the commonplace is captured well by Gartner’s Hype Cycle, shown below.

The story is familiar and easy to follow.  A new discovery creates buzz and elevates expectations.  Possibilities abound.  After some time, it becomes clear that things aren’t working quite like early advocates supposed and disappointment sets in.

Eventually, the new technology finds ways to be useful and gets adopted more widely.  Soon economies of scale set in, accelerating the trend.  Second and third generation products come along and improve reliability and user experience.  Next thing you know, the future becomes old hat.

What’s Hyping Now

Gartner does more than just theorize about hype cycles, they also offer reports on where we stand each year.  A summary chart is shown below.

While many might quibble with the details of Gartner’s analysis, it does help put emerging technologies into perspective.

Some, like human augmentation, are still a long way off.  Others, like cloud computing and augmented reality, have gotten a lot of press, but haven’t achieved much.  Still others, like speech recognition and tablet PC’s are ready for prime time.

Technology Networks

Central to the Hype Cycle is the simple fact that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but must interact with other ideas to become useful.

Shopping malls need suburbs, suburbs need cars, cars need gas stations and on it goes.  Technology, even a major breakthrough, doesn’t exist in isolation.  To cite an extreme case, Gregor Mendel’s discovery of genetics languished for decades until Darwin’s theory of evolution gave it a new home.

Apple, for example, manages the Hype Cycle with unusual virtuosity.  They seldom break new ground by triggering new technologies, but seem to be able to jump into the trough of disillusionment with just the right combination of features in order to bring product categories to their full potential.

Building Networked Silos

Perhaps most importantly, the Hype Cycle shows why the term “innovation,” as a general concept, can lead us astray.  While innovation occurs throughout the business world, it takes a certain set of skills to create truly new ideas and another to bring about mass adoption.

Further, although both types of skills can exist inside the same corporate structure, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that they can flourish in the same type of organization.  That’s why I’ve said in the past that we need silos, but they should be networked silos.  As I mentioned above, it’s when ideas and technologies combine that real value is unlocked.

Different departments or divisions should be able to specialize enough to become “best of breed,” yet still be open enough to benefit from ideas outside their purview.  While perfect interoperability isn’t realistic, reasonably functional external points of interface are crucial to make new concepts successful in the marketplace.

We don’t need to believe the hype in order to take it seriously.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011

    I appreciate your point about innovation. An explosion is no good if it remains a flash in the pan. Sustained change for the better, directly or through subsequent idea interactions, is the true measure of successful innovation.

  2. February 19, 2011

    Good points, Peter. Thanks.

    – Greg

  3. January 8, 2013

    This is great when it comes to larger innovations, like technology, movies, etc. But how can a small business owner or an independent creative ride the wave of hype? I know I’m asking microcosmically, but I’m just curious as to if there is any application for those outside of the mainstream.

  4. January 8, 2013

    That’s a great question!

    I generally approach the hype cycle as a timing tool and I think it is especially important for small businesses because it allows you to focus on the “trough of disillusionment.” I(n other words, you can pretty much ignore everything on Tech Crunch, and then get serious about it when the hype does down. You don’t have to worry about missing out.

    For example, everybody was positively screaming about augmented reality a few years ago, but you hardly hear anything about it now. Has it died? Of course not! If you look closely, AR applications continue to improve. So if AR is applicable to your business, now is the time to get serious about it. Capabilities are improving, but aren’t yet mainstream.

    So I would say that they Hype Cycle is especially important for small businesses, because it helps you allocate scarce time and resources wisely.

    I hope that helps.

    – Greg

  5. Alix permalink
    January 8, 2013

    Thanks, Greg! I appreciate it!

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