„Like the Lemmings” – Technology Push vs. Technology Pull

– Dos and Don´ts in Technology Push Projects

Technology Push is a term from innovation management, in which there is no acute demand for the product yet. This is different from technology pull: here there is an acute demand in the market, the customer is asking for a product and a solution.

In a socially and technologically changing society, the pressure to innovate, i.e. the need to assert oneself in the market environment through new technologies, processes and products, is increasing enormously. Not being innovative is therefore considered to be damaging to a company’s reputation, not to say a sign of a confession of failure. This makes it all the more important to know the risks and pitfalls of innovative projects and to avoid mistakes in practice that do not necessarily arise from theoretical considerations. The willingness to innovate and take risks is indispensable if you want to play in the top league in a technologically changing environment. However, one must not blindly chase after supposed innovation approaches, but must keep an eye on the overall concept and, last but not least, head for the goal by evaluating all feasibilities and risks to steer along the right path.

Don´t underestimate psychological and political factors

The attractiveness of Technology Push projects arises from the seemingly uncompetitive opportunity to access new markets due to the availability of a new technology. Gold-rush atmosphere comes up. The temptation to prioritize Technology Push projects once they have been started is great. It is not for nothing that this field is heavily occupied by technology consultants. The availability of a new technology opens up the supposed prospect of the blue ocean, the market not yet occupied, which is openly available to the technology owner or the elite circle of technology owners. The key technology acts as a door opener for a market that has not yet been tapped. Theoretically possible market potentials are correspondingly high, so that the predicted sales potentials from the business cases are often clearly superior to usual market pull projects. This results in the psychological effect of sometimes overestimated Technology Push projects, which should not be doubted once they have been started: Based on the theoretical probabilities of success, high expectations can be generated and hopes raised, which are often difficult to check for realism due to the lack of concrete applications and pilot customers. The enthusiasm at the start of technology push projects is often correspondingly high, catalysed by the peer pressure. In this phase, systematic questioning of the likelihood of market realization and the naming of risks can be viewed negatively, even as a form of “doubting”. This is accelerated by the fact that not getting on board with the technology carries the risk of later being told that an opportunity has not been seized. The fear that the train will leave without one already leads to a high probability that a technology push project will be started without clearly evaluating the opportunities and risks. The possibility of a career boost via large technology push/ lighthouse projects should be mentioned in passing: Gaining as much attention as possible in the phase of high expectations, generating hopes and handing over the project to a successor in time before entering the phase of reality is one common way to promote careers or being financially successful as technological consultant.

The promotion of Technology Push projects is particularly catalyzed by disruptive technologies, or those that are supposedly disruptive (e.g. this article: 9 disruptive business models). Not getting involved here seems entrepreneurially irresponsible. No one wants to take responsibility for not having started such projects. Appropriate risk assessment is particularly difficult when technology push projects are initiated by top management and open discussions about reasonableness and feasibility are not supported by the hierarchy.

The need for Technology Push projects

Is that why Technology Push projects are to be avoided? No, on the contrary, Technology Push is indispensable for major innovations by technical progress and entry into the Blue Oceans or establishment in highly technical niche markets. But it is important to avoid the pitfalls that, in addition to the vagueness of the actual market potential, massively increase the risk of failure above that of market pull projects. And it is important to understand the internal political influences on technology push projects and, if possible, to eliminate them in order to avoid negative effects on one’s own company. Keeping this in mind Technology Push should be performed with enthusiasm, creativity and motivation to speed up the technical progress and development while opening new business chances.

5 success factors for implementing Technology Push projects

1. Access to the key technology

In order to initiate a Technology Push activity at all, one needs access to the door-opening technology. Already known key technologies are not accessible to one company alone – especially not if the phase of a technology hype has already been reached. Accordingly, the risk is high that the competition is also working on similar solutions. If many companies are working on the same technology push project, the probability of market success is considerably reduced. Information about competitive activities in this field is provided by continuously updated patent searches, an indispensable tool in Technology Push projects. How can a company secure exclusive access to key technologies? This involves a great deal of effort and is often difficult to achieve, especially for medium-sized companies. Cooperations with leading scientists and institutes secure technologies for a company already in their development phase. But how can one know which basic topics are suitable for a later key technology? More promising are strategic cooperations with partners who contribute partial aspects of the key technology. Ideally, the joint know-how is supplemented by the company’s own basic technologies, resulting in a technology package that allows technological implementation in products. For this purpose, the use of own R&D and application technology resources is indispensable, as is the development of internal expertise to understand and perfect the necessary key technology or to tailor it to the application. The combination of technology segments from different partners can lead to a strategic advantage that creates a completely new starting position in an already existing technology field with new opportunities for technological implementation.

2. Identify applications and superior added values

„If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse” (Henry Ford). BUT the customer would have taken the car when it was finally offered to him and he did. The fact that the customer and end user is not aware of the potential product does not mean that there is not potentially a market need. This is just not visibly on the table. This reveals probably the most serious mistake that can be made in Technology Push projects. A possible application on the market is conjured up due to the pressure to succeed in the project, without a need being generated. The task here is to identify applications that the market would demand if they were available. At the same time, supposed applications that no one needs must be mercilessly classified and named as having little or no future potential or just being pseudoinnovative. This is where the wheat is separated from the chaff, and where innovative vision becomes apparent. One example is the nanotechnology hype of the 1990s. Nanotechnology brings with it the possibility of extending the limits of conventional physics in certain areas by means of tailor-made material properties. For example, magnetic properties such as the Curie temperature -a material constant in coarse crystalline materials- can be adjusted in a certain range by changing the nanoparticle size. In the nanotechnology hype, nanoparticles and nanomaterials were tested and developed for every conceivable application. Overlooked was the fact that good technological solutions already exist in many areas. The postulated application was often not realized with nanoparticles, because it was too complex and solved in another and often much easier and less costly way. In individual cases, however, nanotechnology was and is more than successful. The decisive factor here is always the problem that is solved by the technology. The race for market success is usually won by the most efficient and easiest solution.

3. State of the art and competitive analysis

Once a potential problem or market application has been identified, the question must be asked: can this application or problem solution also be served by an alternative technology? If alternative solutions are already available, the added value of the new technological approach must be so significant that the existing solutions are left behind. A successful example is the implementation of the Nesspresso principle. Coffee has been made for a long time. The seemingly complex solution via capsules is successful on the market because the customer gets convenience (no time-consuming preparation or cleaning), the taste is guaranteed at a high level, and there is also a high degree of choice for different tastes accompagnied by a well elaborated marketing strategy.

4. Pilot customer for Technology Push projects

This is not a contradiction. Find an end-customer ally who is willing to go along with the technology development and implementation journey, right from the start of the project. More importantly, find an innovative partner, i.e. creative, willing to take risks but also pragmatic in implementation. Customers who simply demand a lower price without making creative contributions are the wrong partners for innovation projects. Conversely, the chances of market implementation increase considerably with a motivating and contributing pilot customer as a partner. To keep the motivation on a high level a win win situation as final goal has to be identified.

5. Risk management

The identification of possible hurdles or game stoppers is not a matter of doubtness, but rather a compelling necessity to implement a technologically risky project on the market. The difficult balancing act between enthusiasm for the project, identifying creative solutions and pragmatically working through the elimination of hurdles must succeed, and it must be permissible to recognize a dead end in order to use the resources for finding alternative solutions and paths to the goal. It should not be forbidden to stop a project to start another more promising one.

Conclusion

There is no black and white. Innovation projects live from both aspects: Technology Push and Technology Pull. In the course of technology development, technology push projects must undergo a transformation to technology pull projects by identifying realistic market opportunities and bringing them to the mind oft the pilot customers. When developing new technologies, it is always important to keep the benefits in mind right from the start and to enter into a close exchange with the user in order to minimize the risk. Technology push approaches, as the next stage of basic research, are more than necessary for technological progress, despite the higher risk. The risks involved must be openly discussed and managed from the beginning on in order to raise the probability of commercial success without pushing the project just due to internal politics. One thing is clear: without Technology Push approaches, technological development comes to a standstill. Technology push without a clear application or without an additional benefit, however, ends in a dead end.

Literature:

Management of „technology push” development projects, Prof. Dr. Cornelius Herstatt, Christopher Lettl, 2000, TU Hamburg-Harburg, https://cgi.tu-harburg.de/~timab/tim/content/2-forschung/2-publikationen/3-arbeitspapiere/arbeitspapier-5/working_paper_5.pdf

Benjamin Leibowicz, University of Texas, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/310424488_Technology-push_Demand-pull_and_Strategic_RD_Investment

Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works, Harper Collins Publ. UK (1. Juli 2020), ISBN-10 0008339074

The chemist Marcel Roth has been working successfully in sustainable product development since 1999. His international development activities focus on the fields of physical chemistry, surface and nanotechnology as well as functional coatings. As Head of R&D at Dörken Coatings, his interests focus on innovation management and success factors of R&D in a disruptive technological environment.

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