Disruptive Innovation

I’ve had the privilege over the past several weeks to learn about technology cycles and disruptive innovation from some of the pioneering researchers in the field. One of my classes this semester, Technology Strategy for SDM (15.905), is taught by Professor Jim Utterback, who did some of the earliest research into the ideas of dominant design and the various phases that industries go through as technology evolves.  Also during the semester, I’ve had the opportunity to attend eight hours of lectures by Professor Clayton Christensen and to finish reading his first book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.  Though these ideas have been around for a couple of decades, it’s the first I’ve been exposed to them, and they provide a very illuminating framework for looking at the world of technology.

In a nutshell, the idea behind disruptive innovation is that as companies grow, they naturally seek out the higher end of the market, increasing the performance of their products to serve their existing market with innovation after innovation — what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations”.  But in doing so, they often miss new technologies that are simpler and cheaper because they don’t meet the demands of their current customers — after all, why build something that your customers can’t use?  But as other companies begin to build the cheaper technology, the market develops and eventually the technology improves enough that customers are able to switch from the old to the new technology in droves, causing the original firm to suffer an often precipitous decline. This is what Christensen terms “disruptive innovation”.  

A great example of this is the way transistor radios replaced the old vacuum tube variety. At first,  customers of vacuum tube radios would never consider a transistor radio because the quality was very poor in comparison. But a brand new market developed for the transistor radios — that is, it was “competing against non-consumption” — and as technology improved, eventually the quality became satisfactory for the vast majority of customers who had previously been uninterested, and vacuum tube radios became virtually extinct.

There are endless applications of this idea to the world today. One of the most obvious is the way phones and tablets are beginning to disrupt the traditional PC (in the same way the PC disrupted the minicomputers and mainframes of the past). A few years ago, portable devices were not much more than a toy with a few handy features, and you still needed a PC to do any real work. But clearly technology (both hardware and software) is progressing at an extremely fast rate. The PC market is in decline as more and more of what could traditionally be done only on a desktop or laptop can now be done on an iPad, a Kindle, or a smartphone. Looking at the developing world, the smartphone market is exploding — but it’s doubtful that they will ever need or even want PCs. It seems increasingly likely that the PC will suffer the same fate as the mainframes of the 1970’s or the minicomputers of the 1980’s.

Understanding this theory provides an entirely new lens to look at new technologies, and it would be fascinating to apply these ideas specifically to the fundamental shifts we’ve seen in the software industry over the past decade, from desktop apps to web apps to mobile apps. Might be a good thesis topic.

End of January

End of January means end of IAP. We presented our DC3 results on Tuesday morning, and we presented our DC2 results just before lunch today, which marked the official end of our work for the month. We ended up in a good place with good solid recommendations for the usage of polypropylene plumbing systems and for water sustainability, despite staying up late finishing up both presentations.

Some random reflections on the month:

  • It’s really nice to have all meals provided without having to think about what to eat or when to eat. That hasn’t really happened to me since basically the summer after my freshman year of college when my mom made all my meals. Now, it didn’t do me any favors in terms of keeping myself in shape, but I’ve got the rest of the year to work it off.
  • It’s really hard to be productive when working with a team of more than about 4 people. Too many opinions just lead to gridlock, and too many voices make it take forever for everyone to be heard. We learned in System Architecture class that typically systems are architected by either a single person or a very small group, and it’s easy to see why.
  • Boston has weird weather. January started with a bunch of sunny days in the upper 40s, then we had some snowy days in the single digits, and this week we had a couple of really humid days with temperatures around 60. Today the temperature was 60 at sunrise and dropped to 32 by evening.
  • You could keep yourself busy 24/7 with all of the activities, clubs, classes, lectures, etc. that MIT has to offer. It will be a challenge to pick the few things that I want to spend my time on outside of class.

Overall it was a great month. Now it’s back to the work/school routine, with classes this semester on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons.

I’m also going to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on March 1 and 2.  Amazing lineup of people will be there, including Mark Cuban, Stan Van Gundy, Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball), Bill Polian, and many more.  Now that will be fun.

Finishing up DC2 and DC3

Only a few days of January left! This week was extremely cold (Boston finally decided it was winter) and extremely busy (SDM decided that one design challenge at a time wasn’t quite challenging enough).

Our DC2 team had a really productive week. We feel like we are closing in on a good solution to our plumbing problem. We have a review session with the designers on Saturday to go over our ideas so far and see if there’s anything else we need to do before they go build concept models. It was really tough to get over the hump and figure out what really needed to be improved, but I think we’re getting there. Maybe. We’ll see what the designers say tomorrow.

We were also given our final design challenge of the month, DC3, on Wednesday. Turnaround time on this one is ridiculously short, as we have to research a major social/political issue and propose some possible solution concepts and present our group’s conclusions on Tuesday morning. Our group’s assignment is to research concepts for sustainable water systems in developing and developed countries. Easy enough. I mean, how hard could it be to supply clean water to everyone in the world?

Now to close, a couple of videos that have inspired us in our DC2 and DC3 projects:

Halfway done with January

Officially halfway through the January session now. We’re fully immersed in classes right now, including System Architecture, The Human Side of Managing Technological Innovation, Apodictic Design, and a whirlwind review of Probability and Statistics.  Most days now consist of 6-8 hours of class along with various presentations about other opportunities within SDM and MIT.  Then we meet with our DC2 teams to try to figure out how in the world we are supposed to improve a plumbing system that we know nothing about and that is barely even used in America.  It’s really ambiguous what we’re supposed to be doing. But I guess that’s the point. We have to understand the product and its consumers well enough to suggest some sort of design improvement that consumers will love. 

And then, once we’re done with all of that, there’s homework. There’s really enough work to consume all of our waking hours.  So another lesson to be learned is that you don’t have to do everything to 100% completion.  You can spend 50% of the effort and get to 90% completion, and usually that is good enough.

Monday is a school holiday! So of course, being the good Microsoft employee that I am, I’ll be going into work. I think it will actually be relaxing to be able to sit in my office for 8 hours and not have to listen to a lecture or do homework.  And actually, since the session ends on January 31, we only have about 8 more days to be on campus.  It will be over before we know what’s happening.

Back to homework. For my current assignment, I’m doing some investigation into a system for knowledge exchange called Barter, which is being developed at the MIT Media Lab. Maybe I should start charging for these blog posts…

Week two

Almost halfway through the second week already. Hard to believe. We received our second design challenge assignments on Monday. Our group has three weeks to propose some improvements to a plumbing system. My knowledge of plumbing comes solely from the times I have replaced a couple of toilet valves and a bathroom vanity. This should be interesting.

Also, apparently week two is when the homework starts raining down. Four classes in one month and considerable amounts homework in all of them. This might even keep me busier than last week. We’ll see!

MIT network down

MIT network appears to have been down for the past hour. Can’t access mit.edu sites, email, or any other resources. I’m off-campus, but I’m seeing similar on-campus reports on Twitter.

Seems to be an attack, possibly DNS related. If not, it’s an extremely unlikely coincidence given the timing of recent events.

But really? I’m just trying to finish my homework for tomorrow. Bad timing, Anonymous.

[update 8:51pm] TechCrunch has noticed this now, along with the rest of the Internet.

[update 9:53pm] The public mit.edu site is still down, but the internal functions like email and class sites are back up and running. That’s good enough for me.

DC1: Success

Well, DC1 competition is over and our team somehow ended up taking first place overall. Any competition with Legos comes down to mostly luck anyway. We certainly didn’t build the fastest or smartest robot, but we did well enough.

Most importantly, we worked well as a team, despite our numerous differences and disagreements over the course of the week. It’s difficult to keep egos in check when everyone is at an MIT program with an emphasis on developing leaders. It’s also hard to be patient and rational when everyone is operating on so little sleep by the end of the week. But we pulled through and managed to avoid anything heated. Of course, getting good results always helps.

By my count, I spent 92 hours on campus over the past six days. Really glad we get Sunday off. The next few weeks shouldn’t be so bad. The catered meals really make it a pleasant experience for someone who loves food as much as I do.

Here are several videos (direct link) of our team’s robots during DC1 this week, along with a picture of the Pac-Man course we had to navigate for the final challenge. Sorry that I don’t have any video of Pac-Man yet, but it’s kind of boring to watch anyway because most of the robots took a really long time to traverse the course.

Pac-Man Course SDM '13

Past midnight

And we’re still working! Our DC1 Pac-Man and Minesweeper robot competitions start at 9am in the morning, and most teams will probably be here until the wee hours, if not all night. I’ll need some coffee. Will update this weekend with all of the results.

[update] We ended up leaving around 3:30am to get a few hours of sleep. I biked home from campus. It’s actually a great time to bike… no cars or pedestrians anywhere.

In related news, there was what I can only assume was an SDM hack on top of the Great Dome yesterday. Pac-Man appeared on the scaffolding above the dome. These hacks are a famous MIT tradition that I’ve heard about since I was in college, and now I can feel like I’m part of it. Just a little.

[update] Added a couple of photos below, including one I took myself during the scavenger hunt with my DC1 team.

MIT Pac-Man

MIT Pac-Man Scavenger Hunt

Day Four

Another busy day. We had no class today, but instead spent most of the day doing team-building activities followed by a scavenger hunt. In the gaps we tried desperately to finish the homework that we have due tomorrow, and we did manage to finish this late tonight.

The team-building was better than expected. Rather than some lame lessons about the value of teamwork, they actually did a really good job teaching us why cooperation is good and necessary even among competitors. For example, we are competing against the other design challenge teams in each of our robot races, but in reality, we could all do a much better job with much less effort if we shared our ideas and implementations. This requires some ego minimization from both sides, but it can create a much more satisfying result for everyone. Something to really think about as we proceed with the rest of our design challenges this month, as well as work on projects in classes throughout the rest of the program.

Then we went on a scavenger hunt that took us from Beacon Hill to Harvard and many places in between. For the first time this week, our team didn’t win. Another team beat us by about ten minutes. So we settled for second. Not so bad.

Meanwhile, we have our final competition for DC1 on Saturday morning, and we haven’t even begun to build the robot yet. I have a feeling that Friday night will be the latest yet.

Days Two and Three

I crashed as soon as I got home on Tuesday night, so I have to cover two days with this post. I think our conference room had really stale air that was making me a little sick on Tuesday. We opened the window today and it made everything so much better.

We’re still working in our teams for the first design challenge with the MindStorm robots. Our cohort is split into ten teams of about six people each. We had mini competitions on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and somehow our team ended up winning both of the competitions. I’d like to say it’s because of our intellectual superiority. Yeah, I’ll go with that.

I think the teams are striking a really good balance of competitiveness and friendliness. We’re all extremely secretive about our robots and the algorithms we’re trying to use, but it’s all good-natured. At least I think so.

Classes also officially started today with the first session of ESD.34, which is an introduction to the architecture of systems. Among other things, we learned how to describe reflective tape without using the word ‘reflective’. I believe it had something to do with tiny cubes. Anyway, the other two IAP classes also start over the next few days, so we’re going to start having a bunch of homework in addition to the team design challenges. So much fun!