Where does innovation come from? You’ve heard the stories of legendary inventors like Thomas Edison toiling away late at night on hundreds of failed efforts to develop a viable electric lightbulb before finally finding a filament that worked. You also probably know plenty of stories from the legendary hotbeds of tech innovation such as Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and Apple.
But I want to shine a lightbulb on a different source of innovation that often gets overlooked. Sometimes, long after a key technology is invented, it takes on a new life — a “second act.” This often happens when somebody thinks up a new way to use it. That somebody is often one of the customers for the technology, not its inventor or the company created to commercialize it. People thinking about the technology from a different perspective, often have a knack for figuring out new and innovative ways to deploy technologies that surprise their inventors.
One of the most intriguing of these second-act innovations took place against the backdrop of World War II. American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts.” He must not have ever met his contemporary, Hedy Lamarr, who breathed new life into an existing technology and gave it a second act — and arguably an even more impressive third. She also created a rather unconventional second act for her own life. But let’s back up a moment.
A Beautiful Dreamer
Lamarr’s first act was as a film actress. She was promoted in the 1930s as one of the most beautiful women in the world, but she also had talents and plans in areas beyond the silver screen. In her off-screen life — in her own second act — she co-developed torpedo guidance technology designed to enable Allied weapons to get past Axis jamming systems. This innovation, based on decades-old frequency-hopping spread-spectrum techniques, wasn’t officially adopted in World War II, but the military took note of Patent 2,292,387 and put the invention on its “red-hot” list (it was rumored to have been deployed on Navy ships around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis).
A new use for the technology and a “third act” in Lamarr’s legacy came a few decades later, when a derivative technology became a core component in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi systems. (Somewhere between acts two and three, Lamarr’s name also had a moment of its own as a punchline in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles.)
A number of technologies have followed the same pattern of emergence and reemergence. After finding success in one arena, they’re even more successful in an entirely different sector. Think about how scanning technology, for example, has evolved. When commercial scanners first emerged, they were often designed for capturing text-centric business documents. They were used in document management systems or to offer an alternative to the once-ubiquitous fax machine. However, as key specs such as image resolution and scanning speed improved, scanners became suitable for a wide range of other purposes. Once scanner resolution crossed a tipping point, the doors to new markets — from publishing to medical imaging — swung open.
Fast forward to today’s world, where scanners have become so commonplace that they’re practically invisible. With improvements in miniaturization and cost reduction, scanners are often merely a component, not a stand-alone device. They’re embedded in point-of-sale systems and biometric security devices, and they’re ubiquitous in many field service operations. Scanners and other sensor technologies have helped to usher in the age of the internet of things — and with the IoT, we’re tapping into the phenomenal benefits available when we can monitor, analyze, and learn from today’s exponentially growing data streams.
My company sees innovative ideas for leveraging data from our customers all the time. For example, our customers are helping us figure out how our field service automation platform can help them adapt to the new demands presented by COVID-19. If necessity is the mother of invention, it is also the godmother of reinvention. As much as we strive every day to understand the needs of our customers, nobody can possibly be as good at understanding those needs as our customers themselves. I’m thankful for what I learn from our customers every day.
The Customer Is Always Bright
The pandemic has driven many industries to reinvent their business models and rethink business processes that had been so ingrained that they hadn’t been thought about for decades. Is it essential? Is it safe? Can it be done in a contact-free manner or even remotely? That tried-and-true scanning technology is helping many customers update and automate their outdated workflows.
The COVID experience may be accelerating this process of customers proactively participating in the ongoing process of reinvention, but customers have always been vital partners in innovation. For example, decades ago, Apple made a big bet as a customer for small hard drives — a mature component that some were already ready to write off in favor of optical media and flash storage — as a key component of transforming its idea for a pocketable music player, the iPod, into a phenomenon.
There’s a song in Hamilton titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Many software companies want to make sure customers know the story of their platform, but companies should also remember to acknowledge that their customers are partners in driving innovation and should pay attention to their stories as well. Customers know which pieces of the puzzle they have available. They know what needs configuring or tweaking. They know the data to pay attention to and the data to ignore. And they know precisely where their pain points are and what their most urgent challenges are.
By the way, that song from Hamilton comes at the end of the show’s second act. Like many of the most innovative customer-driven transformations, it definitely has a powerful and memorable impact.
An earlier version of this post by Zinier’s CEO and Co-Founder was previously published as part of our participation in the Forbes Technology Council.