Connecting a Better Mousetrap: why the best technology doesn’t always win

23 Jan 2018

It's over a century and a half since Ralph Waldo Emerson told us all that the world would beat a broad path to the door of anyone whose products were better than anyone else's. But 150 years’ experience has shown again and again that this is not the case.

Virtue, it turns out, is often the only reward an innovator will gain. New discoveries remain undeveloped, patents expire and we are left with the cliché that 'the time wasn't right'. And even when there is a genuine thirst for new innovations it is not always the best technology that wins out.  

The sad truth is that many innovative technologies fail despite being considerably better than the competition. It's a business school classic: the rivalry between Betamax and VHS, with a general consensus that Betamax was the better format in all sorts of technical areas and yet lost out to its more commercial rival.

The fact that both are now in the dustbin of innovation history ought not disguise the fact that Betamax failed and that VHS more than amply repaid its investors. 

It's a lesson that passes by many inventors and developers who are wedded to technical superiority - rationally trained scientists and engineers are perhaps the worst offenders in this respect. They tend to assume that their innovation, once launched, will proceed downstream in a more or less orderly manner. But again, experience suggests that it’s rarely so simple - it isn't until the product reaches the customer that we know what sort of reception it will receive. We can try and obviate some of this through market research, focus groups and suchlike but as adman David Ogilvy said: "The consumer does not behave as they say, they do not say what they think and they do not think what they feel". Often, the result is that whatever plans formulated do not survive 'first contact' - or, in the words of Mike Tyson, 'everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.' It's that first punch that sees many an innovation counted out in round one. 

David Ogilvy

A flexible approach is required, one which accepts that maybe none of us –inventors, developers, consumers –really understand what the future holds. This has become popularised as “the lean start-up”: build a minimum viable product (MVP) and engage your customer - they will tell you what is right and wrong with it and together you will co-create success. A major proviso is that customers only really prove their interest when they get the cheque book out - repeat cash sales are the only true validation. However, the lean start-up still implies linear progress that could be interpreted over simplistically, and not all products lend themselves to an MVP.

Let's have another look at that idea of the time being right; why the stars of successful innovation need to be aligned and why some inferior products succeed and superior ones fail? 

The answer must be related to the unpredictability and complexity of the customer decision making process. This process is the sum of multiple interconnected forces, all of which bear influence upon the decision maker. It’s partly rational – which product is technically superior? It’s partly emotional – how does the product and process make the customer feel? But it’s also a landscape of connectivity – within the various ‘tides’ pulling customers one way and the other, what are the trade offs, how large are they, and where is the nearest optimum?  

Selling is the prime example. If we define Sales as an activity that aims to swing the customer decision making process in a particular direction, then it can take years to understand the interconnected forces. Such lessons are hard won, fiercely guarded and often specific to an individual product category - that's why many salespeople stay in the same industry. Investors and serial entrepreneurs recognise this interconnectivity and its complexity, all against a disruptive background - maybe that's why most universities and business schools formally teach Marketing but tend to ignore Sales. 

We are increasingly aware of the various hard and soft skills required for a successful enterprise - and attempts have been made to measure them: I.Q., E.Q. and several more. But what about a connectivity quotient? One that recognises all the different factors that may have to be called upon to allow the lean start-up approach to proceed in several different directions and dimensions at once. Such a measure would help both innovators and potential investors assess how resilient a project may be going forward. 

Finally, and ironically, what has made Emerson's remark so memorable is the example of the better mousetrap. Yorkshire ironmonger James Henry Atkinson patented what became the 'Little Nipper' (GB 13277) over a hundred years ago. It’s still in production by the same manufacturers and is now so cheap that it and its imitators can be re-marketed as ‘disposable’. It is said that over 4,400 US patents for mousetraps have been issued since the ‘Little Nipper’, with only twenty designs actually making any money.

So, if you want to build a better mousetrap it will have to be something special. 

David Falzani MBE CEng FIMechE is a serial entrepreneur and business consultant, Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School, and President of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship - which has given away over £8m in bursaries to young engineers.

Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.


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