How to work around our collective lack of imagination
There’s a lot of marketing and hype around 5G. There is no doubt that lower latency and speeds of 100 to 1000 times 4G are going to transform the world and how we live in it. The problem is that no one is very good at figuring out how the technology will do that.
5G is in effect a field of dreams: build it and they will come. People keep coming up with ways to chew up bandwidth, so I’m quite confident that they will come--but I’m disappointed in our ability to imagine what they’ll come for.
Beyond use cases like autonomous vehicles, remote surgery and maybe video conferencing, I get lost. As soon as the industry buzz words start coming out (live TV at scale, fog computing, massive machine to machine communication, etc.) my suspicion is that they are covering up a lack of imagination. Additionally, experts often cite technologies that will be enabled by 5G, but fail to tell me why I should care. Like VR/AR for non-gamers.
I’m left believing that 5G will transform the world but am unable to tell you how or why you should care. This is exactly why incumbent players usually lose out as technology evolves: it’s a failure of imagination.
Knowing this challenge, how should leaders proceed--as stewards of the federal government, and the private sector alike?
You know nothing, Jon Snow: Accept the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen. The use cases of the future don’t exist because the people that know the most have little incentive to do more than think incrementally. If you are dominant today, you don’t want to imagine a time when you’re scrambling for scraps.
It’s not me, it’s you: Don’t fall into the trap of only focusing on the customer’s experience with your product. That’s too “you” centric. Try instead to focus on your customer’s experience with the problem you are trying to solve for them. For example, I was happy with cable, but the first time I streamed a video on Netflix, I knew it was the future and I just wanted more. Within a year I’d cut the cord. Any cable company, Disney, or other content provider could have seen this coming if they’d been able to think past their current product.
Don’t laugh at the iPhone: Whatever the killer apps are for 5G they are sure to make current winners angry and uncomfortable. If existing players don’t want to tell you heatedly why you are wrong, then you aren’t thinking big enough. I always think about Steve Ballmer mocking the iPhone to remind myself of this one.
Lots of experiments: Experimentation is the logical response to uncertainty but carries its own risks. Experiments tend to become permanent projects that divert resources and attention. Set up several small experiments with a process to review them quarterly or semi annually. Kill the ones that aren’t working.
Prepare to pivot: Most likely you aren’t going to invent the next killer app, so prepare yourself and your organization to pivot. It’s a delicate balancing act to know when to put significant resources into something. The post Ballmer Microsoft is a good example. Ideally they would have moved to the cloud a few years sooner, but when they did pivot, they put everything they had behind it. It’s paid off well for them.
While we may not know where 5G technology will take us, we can only get there by taking the first steps in seeing what it can do. As leaders, the potential can be overwhelming but I feel confident that with new perspectives and some imagination, the future of 5G will assuredly rise to the hype.