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How to innovate in a cautious industry

Approaching innovation in traditionally technologically conservative industries must be handled carefully and methodically.

How to innovate in a cautious industry
[metamorworks / Adobe Stock]

Many startup founders dream of creating a solution that is immediately embraced by the marketplace. In the consumer sector, and even some business-to-business (B2B) industries, this can certainly happen. However, in conservative industries, like government services, critical infrastructure, and others, things are often much different.

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These industries tend to adopt new innovations at a much slower pace for a variety of reasons, including procurement processes, politics, and funding. But most often, it’s because they are responsible for providing high-stakes services that have far-reaching impacts on people.

Making technology changes in a 9-1-1 center has greater implications than deploying a new phone system in a corporation. Sure, it’s important that neither organization misses a call, but only one has potentially fatal consequences should the phone go unanswered.

Although there is a great responsibility on these organizations to ensure service continuity for the protection of people, and any disruption or failed tech deployment can have devastating impacts, it doesn’t mean there can’t be innovation. In fact, successful innovation in these areas can have long-lasting positive changes that enhance quality of life for entire communities.

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So, approaching innovation in traditionally technologically conservative industries must be handled carefully and methodically.

In 2000, I founded a startup to help law enforcement agencies better use data for keeping cities safe. In 10 years, we scaled up the business, gained a solid footing in several agencies, and were acquired by a leading industry player. Along the way, I learned several lessons for overcoming innovation challenges in conservative industries that I still use today.

DETERMINE CUSTOMER NEEDS AND WORK BACKWARD

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Rather than creating a new innovation and hoping for adoption, it’s best to figure out the customer’s need, then work back from there. This involves spending time with them to determine how your solution integrates with their systems, and then iteratively developing an offering—in lockstep with the customer.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. Most technology startups have very limited resources and don’t have the bandwidth to operate as management consultants in this capacity. However, the return on investment (ROI) comes when you establish a handful of reference customers who become advocates for your solutions.

BE CUSTOMER-OBSESSED

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Ideally, these reference customers are the early adopters in their organizations. As such, it’s critical to be fully obsessed with meeting their needs.

During my startup days, I spent a lot of time in police departments working directly with end-users to fully understand their business processes and pain points. This time investment with the customer paid off in the form of a long-term relationship that laid the foundation for my company.

But it’s important to note that the job doesn’t stop when the customer’s new system goes into production. You must always keep a pulse on the customer’s use of the solution and their evolving needs. I still use this process with customers today as we work together to find the solutions that can make those sometimes-incremental improvements that, nevertheless, can make a big difference.

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By always going above and beyond all expectations, it ultimately reinforces your passion to meet their needs and signals your seriousness as a trusted innovator.

FIND THE RIGHT PARTNERS

In government and public safety, there is inherent hesitancy to engage with startups for fear they won’t be around in three years. Proposals and solicitations also may require your financials and customer lists, which may be small or even nonexistent.

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For many startups, providing this information to win a contract is not an option. This is why it’s ideal to partner with larger companies. By finding a prime contractor, you can allow them to take the lead on contracts and integrate your solutions into their offerings. You can also leverage their sales force for opening the door to new opportunities.

IN THE END: KEEP YOUR FOCUS

Even in technologically conservative industries, the competition can be fierce. As soon as your solution gains traction, new competitors will rapidly emerge—some may even have deeper marketing and sales resources.

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It’s best to remain focused on innovation and anticipate future customer needs. While cautious industries tend to move a bit slower, being one step ahead when it comes to innovation development is critical.

By putting the customer first and always helping them meet their critical missions, it is possible to become a true innovator in industries that are conservative when it comes to adopting new technologies.


Chief Technology Officer of Hexagon’s Safety & Infrastructure division, focused on innovative new technologies for smart and safe cities.

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