In technology, reliability comes before innovation

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Tech’s relentless focus on innovation is a derivative of how competitive the environment is for consumer engagement. In a world where consumers have endless options for their mindshare, media companies are constantly pressured to innovate and differentiate themselves with new experiences to make their products and features as tacky as possible.

However, in the pursuit of the press release, sometimes companies can inadvertently skip steps before they have mastered the basics.

In my experience driving digital innovation at Comcast, AT&T, and Endeavor Streaming, focusing on mastering the basics of your current core offerings can deliver much higher value to your customers and business than chasing the latest bells and whistles. Sometimes the most innovative thing you can do for a company is to focus on the hard operational work that would otherwise be ignored or delayed.

While it may not be newsworthy, being the gold standard for your fundamental value proposition can have a profound impact on the journey of your business and thus your continued relevance with your customers. It can also give you the right to innovate in more meaningful ways as your business grows and allows for more experimentation with research and development.

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What is reliable technology?

Reliable technology is like the air we breathe. We take it for granted until we don’t have it – and if we don’t have it, it’s a crisis.

In my world of video streaming experiences, reliability means users don’t waste their precious free time trying to figure out how to access their favorite entertainment. They should take it for granted that they can watch whatever they want on their favorite device anytime, regardless of the complex technical challenges associated with delivering high-quality live streams on a global scale. Reliability for the consumer means that the product works quickly and comes with an exceptional level of quality.

Is there a ‘rest point’ when it comes to the effectiveness of your technology? The law of diminishing returns applies to any technology. Adding another “.9” to your Service Reliability Number can come at a high financial cost, but does your customer really care about the difference between a millisecond and a microsecond of downtime or latency?

If you are a high frequency trader, the answer is yes, and that investment is easily justified. However, with most consumer products it is likely that users will not be able to tell the difference. So with any technology, it’s all about finding the technical tolerance that allows you to serve customers with high quality and price that they find value in.

Regardless of the metric you use to measure the reliability of an existing product, ask the following questions: Which step of improvement will increase the value perceived by the end user? And how does that translate back into business value for the company?

The risks of being too forward-looking

There are endless ways to pursue innovation, but only a few will prove to be truly valuable to users on a meaningful scale. Companies that are too forward-looking run some potential risks.

The first risk is that there is an opportunity cost of solving the wrong problem. As an early mover, you can spend a lot of time chasing a new feature or market opportunity, but that time can be wasted on something with minimal returns. Perhaps that same time and effort could be better spent driving a 5% incremental improvement on a proven core feature that users will feel with every interaction with your product. Engineering and product cycles are valuable and scarce in many organizations. Use them thoughtfully when taking risks to ensure they are calculated.

A second risk is misunderstanding your users and their needs. Products like the Segway, 3D TV and many others had a bold vision of the future, but were too far removed from what people needed and wanted in their daily lives. Extensive user testing and brutal honesty about what your data reveals about your product is the best way to protect yourself from chasing something that seems transformative on paper but can be a dud in practice.

There is time and place for innovation, but proceed with caution

All this is not to say that we should ignore innovation altogether. But to pursue it intelligently, you need an in-depth understanding of your core value proposition and the evolving behavior of your customers.

Companies with reliable solutions are almost always disrupted by technologies that are objectively worse when they first hit the market. No one who worked in a newsroom in the 90s thought the dial-up modem would revolutionize their industry. Sometimes we underestimate how a single innovation can disrupt an entire market.

We’ve seen some of these groundbreaking shifts in digital media. Magazine publishers have not only been notoriously late in the game in embracing the rise of the Internet, but have also struggled to recognize the shift in consumer interest and Internet traffic from online text-based content to short video.

Most recently, technology has had a major impact on the rise of direct-to-consumer streaming and the associated decline in traditional linear bundled entertainment experiences. Media companies that clung too much to their traditional linear model without acknowledging the data on the massive shift to streaming got off to a late start. Those companies are now catching up in a highly competitive market for their share of consumer wallets and mindshare.

There are times when it makes sense to join the conversation about what’s next, but forward innovation must be rooted in changing consumer behavior as it aligns with your technology’s core value proposition. Think of trusted technology as the foundation that enables your organization to innovate in more strategic ways as it scales.

it comes down to

The challenge will always lie in finding a balance between reliability and innovation. For any business to be successful, be it a technology-driven business or not, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what your core value proposition is. Understanding who your customer is and what value you are truly delivering to them is critical to any business. It should be your north star.

If – and only if – it happens that your core assets are capable of solving multiple problems, and the timing is right, you can expand into new offerings. But the platform mentality should always be to improve the overall baseline rather than chasing hollow one-off announcements.

A headline can last a week in the news cycle, but reliable technology gives your business the fundamental stamina to have lasting power over the long term.

Chris White is SVP and chief product officer of Endeavor Streaming

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