Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On Product Development, Technology Trajectory, and The Phenomenon of Tunnel Vision

It seems to be tough times for Sony-Ericsson (where they even begin to doubt one another), Motorola, and to some degree also for Nokia.

The mobile phone industry is not the only industry where the product development is a battle though. That goes for most high tech industries. The battle is between one hand trying to understand and satisfy the consumers’ needs and on the other hand – and at the same time – work within those parameters which the current technological advancement enforces upon you. With that I mean that we for sure would like to transport ourselves as they do in the TV-series Star Trek. However, our current technological advancement does not allow us to do that.

An additional problem to the matter is that decisions made in the product development are made under uncertainty of the future market. Product decisions which are made today may be perfectly sensible in today’s situation but when they are a realised in a future situation, they can turn out to be very unpractical.

The challenge for the product development department is to handle the balance between develop products which the customer demands in the unknown future and at the same time focus on what kind of products you are able to develop with the technology you have at your disposal.

When the pressure is high on the product development department to continuously launch new innovative offering and to do this under a long time, the department run the risk of not being able to “keep their gaze upon the horizon” so to speak. Slowly under the pressure they “lower the gaze” and the phenomenon of tunnel vision becomes apparent. You become trapped in a technology trajectory.

The product development funnels into a technological trajectory where it becomes more and more about refinement of a specific technology and less and less about innovating out of that technology. When you get stuck in such technology trajectory, you become product focused instead of market focused. You refine and refine the same type of products.

This is the case with Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia I think. They have now launched many new models of mobile phones which more are variation of each other than major product advancement. They have reached a dead end in their product development.

Often the dominant players have big difficulties too break out of this trajectory of tunnel vision by themselves. Instead it is new players which enter the playing field. They find new ways of taking care of the customers' needs. In the mobile industry it seems to be Apple and Android, to mention a few, who gives the industry a reality check.

However, many firms have got stucked in trajectories before – e.g. IBM, GM, and Swedish FACIT. The “old” mobile phone producers seem to be in good company.

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