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Targeting Technological Agility

Business cycles are getting shorter — the days of multiple year projects are gone. How can you adapt to this fundamental change in your business? The answer is technological agility. Mark Johnson explains the necessity of translating your current (and new) technologies into tangible growth.

The pendulum has swung. Technological agility—the ability to turn on a dime to adapt to a marketplace change or to address a customer need—sacrificed to postdownturn cost-cutting is now sorely missed. “Business is absolutely screaming for agility,” Emmet B. Keeffe III, co-founder of software development company iRise, told CEOs gathered for a panel discussion on technological agility. Keefe outlined a pressing need for speed on projects ranging from redesigning a web site to developing new software applications. “In the past it was okay to have a 12-month, 18-month, or even, in the federal government, 10-year project,” he noted, “But now business is not going to stand for those cycle times.”

Theragenics CEO M. Christine Jacobs’ agility IQ was tested when a change in the government’s healthcare reimbursement program rendered her company’s principal product— an innovative treatment for prostate cancer—no longer profitable. She responded by abruptly switching her focus from the company’s core product to its core capability: manufacturing sophisticated surgical products. Not surprisingly, the hardest part was getting her company aligned behind the shift. “It was a bit like trying to tell a board that the baby is ugly; there was that kind of emotional connection,” she recounts, noting that three board members had undergone the treatment. “I’ve still got one director who’s pounding the table.”

For Mark W. Johnson, author of Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation for New Growth and Transformation, technological agility is about the ability of the business model to change to translate existing technologies and new technologies into transformational growth. “It’s important to remember that there were many, many companies before Apple with MP3 technology,” the Innosight chairman and co-founder points out. He cites Rio Diamond, which released the first MP3 player in 1998—three years before the iPod. “The problem was that it was very, very hard to download the music. The magic of Steve Jobs was in looking at the user experience. Apple went beyond the technology of the MP3 player to add iTunes, so that you could seamlessly download the music from your computer onto your iPod. That’s a classic example of innovating around an existing technology to adapt the technology for mass consumer adoption.”

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.