What Push and Why Pull

There is an oft presented dogma in business that it’s a Bad Thing when a venture is “technology push” rather than “market pull”. The rationale behind this is that you should understand the market before you attempt to solve the problem with a given piece of technology. If a piece of technology is driven by a clear market opportunity, then that is “market pull” and so is a much better way to proceed than if you start with a piece of technology and attempt to find a market for it. As a general idea, it makes perfect sense.

I’ve always been uncomfortable, however, when the dichotomy is taken to its logical conclusion. Clearly some technologies, which are developed first and foremost as a technology, have excellent market opportunities, once they have been discovered or developed (think almost any disruptive technology). It’s hard to argue that these weren’t technology push, and that investigating the market wasn’t a sensible thing to do in the situation, so how would typical business thinking rationalise this? Probably with some woolly discussion of how the entrepreneur possessed some market insight that drove the technology, giving it an implicit market pull – certainly that’s how I’ve been rationalising it to myself.

I had my big insight during a discussion I had a couple of days ago with a co-partner in The Innovation Agency, Ian, in which we were planning a seminar we are running in several departments in the University of Cambridge. We are planning to structure the seminars around the idea of the Golden Circle, introduced by Simon Sinek during a TED talk:

It’s an excellent talk and well worth the time to watch it, but, in a nutshell, the idea of the Golden Circle is that we can consider a venture diagrammatically as a series of concentric circles with a “why” at its core, surrounded by a “how” and concluding at the edge with a “what”. The thing that really innovative businesses, organisations and individuals have in common is that they consider their activities from the inside to the outside of the circle. That is, they firstly consider why they are doing what that do, then the consider how they are going to do it, only then do they think about what it is they are going to do. Obviously, that’s somewhat of a simplification, but the idea is that why should be at the core of everything that is done. The why is the philosophy that drives everything and is the emotion behind the how and the what.

Conversely, many companies and organisations work the exact opposite way, thinking firstly of what they are doing, then perhaps how they are doing it, and, chances are, never arriving at the why. This means they can never fully engage with their customers on the decision making emotional level.

It was from this that my mental light bulb lit up regarding “technology push” and “market pull” ventures. The point is, is that distinction is the wrong way to look at it. A much better way to think about it is as “what push” and “why pull”. This means that an opportunity might be technology push but be driven by an overarching why.

This gives an interesting perspective on my current field of interest of commercialisation of academic research. Most scientific and technical academic research is strongly driven by a why – some real world question or problem that needs solving without any interest as to the how or what. Indeed, many an academic has failed by getting too hung up on the wrong what. It follows, therefore, that academic research and technology carries with it an implicit why. If that why can be paired with positive answers to the other whys of “why are you doing this?” and “why might this not work?” (which are always necessary, technology push or market pull), then it strikes me that the opportunity should be there.

The thing I take from this is that every piece of academic research should be investigated for its real world impact. That’s not to say that everything should be commercially exploited, but the why behind it should be pushed as far as it can go. For example, in the case of climate research, its important that as a society we understand and act upon the implications of the outcomes of the research, whatever they may be, because that satisfies the implicit why. Further to this, every academic funded through public money has a societal obligation to see this why pushed to its logical conclusion, so that we all may benefit.

The other interesting thing to think about is whether there are any market pull opportunities that aren’t why pull? I can’t immediately think of any, but there must be some…


About Henry Gomersall

I'm a engineer wanting to make things actually useful. I'm someone that wants to drive technology and ideas to be helpful for everyone. I'm someone that realises the disconnect between technology and utility and I hope to correct that...
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