The Toolmaker's Dilemma: Visionaries Have Always Created Their Own Tools · Bits, Bytes, and Gates

The Toolmaker's Dilemma: Visionaries Have Always Created Their Own Tools

I recently saw a quote (on Twitter, in a photo no less) to roughly the same effect as the title above: that innovators and visionaries have always created their own tools. I'd attribute the quote if I could, but the dynamic nature of Twitter has ensured that my chances of locating the original post are slim to none. Nonetheless, I've been thinking quite a bit about the concept over the last few weeks. First, whether the claim is true. Secondly, if true, whether this is a good, bad, or neutral thing. And thirdly, what, if anything, could or should be done to change the situation.

Who Are the Visionaries?

One of my favorite Geoffrey Moore books is Crossing the Chasm, which I've read this multiple times over the course of my career. Despite some of the example in the book being a bit dated, much of the advice is still relevant and I feel that I come away with new insights every time I read the book.

Moore identifies Visionaries as the Early Adopters in his book.
Visionaries are that rare breed of people who have the insight to match an emerging technology to a strategic opportunity, the temperament to translate that insight into a high-visibility, high-risk project, and the charisma to get the rest of their organization to buy into that project. 
Visionaries drive the high-tech industry because they see the potential for an "order-of-magnitude" return on investment and willingly take high risks to pursue that goal. 
Moore sees Visionaries as seeking monetary return on investment, and I've encountered many of these. However, I've also encountered Visionaries that are looking for different types of return on investment -- for example, fundamentally altering the way an industry approaches functional verification methodology.

The Opportunities and Challenges of Visionaries

Engaging with Visionaries, as with all of the personalities across the technology adoption curve, has its opportunities and challenges. Visionaries have a clear and ambition vision of the future, and are highly motivated to realize that vision. On the flip side, Visionaries make for demanding customers. Quoting Moore:
As a buying group, Visionaries are easy to sell to but very hard to please. This is because they are buying a dream -- which, to some degree will always be a dream.
Visionaries are also, by definition, out of step with the majority and early majority portions of the market where you hope to get your tool adopted, and often 5-10 years ahead. This can be a good thing if you buy into their vision of the future. However, it's often unclear whether their ideas are crazy good or just crazy.

Moore advises an approach of partnership with Visionaries. This can be a good approach for truly early stage technologies, provided the Visionary is backed by an organization with deep pockets (either financial or people resources), and provided that you buy into their vision of the future. When these criteria are not met, it's very likely a "business decision" will be made to not engage with the Visionary since engagement won't help the product get to its intended destination.

Why do Visionaries Build their Own Tools?

The decision to not engage with a Visionary is typically done for good and rational reasons. After all, the market is optimized to target the majority -- and this is true both for commercial and non-commercial endeavors. However, the story often doesn't end here. Remember, Visionaries are highly-motivated people and driven to realize their view of the future.

A not-infrequent result is that Visionaries collect pieces of available technology and proceed to implement a version of the tool of their dreams. So, the short answer is that Visionaries build their own tools because they feel they haven't any viable alternatives.

What's Wrong with this Picture?

So, is this really a problem, or just the way technology needs to evolve? After all, the best way to determine whether an idea is crazy-good or just crazy is to wait and see if it gains traction or withers away. Just like biological evolution, this makes sense in large ecosystems. Losing a few crazy-good ideas along with the plain crazy ideas in a large ecosystem is just a cost of doing business.

However, many of us find ourselves, by choice or circumstance, in much smaller niche ecosystems. Here, fostering innovation is key to growing the ecosystem. Losing a few crazy-good ideas makes a big difference here. And, the fact that Visionaries are off building out their visions on the fringes of the ecosystem has the effect of further subdividing an already-small ecosystem.

A Venture Capital Approach to Visionaries

If you find yourself in a niche ecosystem -- whether commercial or open source -- I would encourage you to take a venture capital approach to supporting the work of Visionaries. What do I mean by this? Make some bets to enable the work of Visionaries in the tool you provide to the market, and provide ways for Visionaries to interact with your tool's community. Much like the investments venture capital makes, the assumption is that most of these bets won't pay off, but that a few will pay off in a big way.

One big thing that has changed since Geoffrey Moore wrote Crossing the Chasm in 1991 is just how easy it is for communities (even niche ones) to connect and interact. This provides fundamental new opportunities when it comes to propagating new technology to technology ecosystems, and merits a rethink in the way we approach the relationship between new technology and visionaries.

In some sense, the suggestion above changes relatively little about the way we build and promote tools. We often accidentally build in capabilities that visionaries can use. However, I believe we can get even better results by deliberately and intentionally creating these visionary-friendly mechanisms. Plan and develop extension mechanisms that don't impact usability for mainstream users, but allow visionaries to implement their visions in the context of your tool instead of needing to create a completely-separate tool. Keep visionaries close to your community of existing users so they have a ready audience to help accelerate the process of identifying crazy-good ideas and weeding out plain-crazy ideas. Be on the lookout for those truly crazy-good ideas that resonate with your community and have potential to be the next big thing.

The views and opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or any other party.