Understanding the Hype Cycle and Organisational Trajectories

In today’s fast-evolving technology landscape, innovation plays a pivotal role in shaping future product portfolios as industries explore new ways to streamline business operations, deliver efficiencies, and deepen customer engagement. However, with the accelerating pace of change, it’s essential to separate the innovations which will disrupt or drive transformative outcomes and thus need large investment from those that need to be explored but not yet invested in. As enterprise technology innovations gain momentum, capture imaginations and trigger impulse decisions sparked by the fear of missing out, trends can just as quickly pivot from hype and excitement to disillusionment. The Gartner Hype Cycle is frequently looked to by those in the IT industry as the go-to resource for objective insight into the risks and opportunities of new emerging technologies as they begin to gain momentum. The concept, first published in 1995, is still used today to estimate the trajectory of innovations and whether they will ever pass the Trough of Disillusionment following the initial hype.

Delivering business value from innovation

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to innovation that can help businesses understand customer needs, drive efficiencies and find the competitive edge their organisations need. The role of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) within a company is to understand emerging technologies and make the right level of investment depending on where we are in the hype cycle and the potential impact if the hype is real. This requires keeping a finger on the pulse of rapidly changing technological innovations, having the capacity to investigate them deeply and being prepared to pivot and invest in them quickly to drive the company’s technology vision and strategy across roadmaps, products, and customers.

An understanding of the stages of adoption using the context of the Gartner Hype Cycle is an effective way to map out which technologies need the organization’s attention. However, as a technology leader steering the vision and strategy critical to developing or enhancing a specific company’s technological products or services, CTOs must map these technologies against potential risk of disruption and opportunity of customer impact. Trends with a higher potential for disruption merit a larger investment earlier in the hype cycle even at the cost of wasted effort. Exciting, shiny trends that may look good but won’t have a large impact can wait until later in the hype cycle. Not every innovation, particularly not in every initial application, will work for every organisation or solve customer pain points.

Crafting such a technology roadmap for your organization requires a more considered, data-driven approach to finding technology destined to deliver value and ROI for the business. To develop a more accurate picture as to which solutions are “buzz tech” that will provide friction and offer minimum value, this can effectively help CTOs develop their own Hype Cycle map to delve into disruptive technologies and estimate their trajectory within the context of the strategic objectives of their organization.

Similar to the Gartner Hype Cycle, organisational hype cycles consider how each of the progressing stages of the model applies to an organisation’s implementation of new, innovative technology:

Innovation trigger: At this stage, early enthusiasts start to use the new technology, creating initial pilot use cases that spark interest across the wider business through a ‘bottom-up’ momentum. In the case of large language models (LLMs) such as GPT-3, for example, this would be a small group of developers, content creators and other tech-savvy people experimenting with the technology for tasks such as text generation, language translation and code suggestions. When these early use cases emerge and spark wider interest, CTOs should evaluate how much the disruption would be if the hype was fully realized against how hard it would be to catch up if the organization started late. For LLM-based technologies, for example, companies that needed to train their own LLMs would have benefited from early investment and being first to market but other companies were better off waiting for easier to adopt solutions from other major vendors to be available. In either case, enough investment is needed to understand the potential impact and whether it’s better to wait for the ecosystem to mature.

Peak of inflated expectations: Once the early enthusiasts have demonstrated positive results from a technology, they create a ripple of excitement. Sometimes the technology’s potential gets amplified with unrealistic projections about its ease of use and transformative powers. This leads to a ‘gold-rush’ mentality where various departments scramble to cash in on replicating the hyped benefits. This hype also leads to a fragmented ecosystem of immature frameworks that are likely to change. Hasty decisions and shadow acquisition of new tools in this phase can lead to unnecessary investment before tools are fully ready and need a lot of iteration before investments pay off. Waiting for the space to mature can sometimes be faster in the end. However, in some areas, the impact is so high that one must accept the risk and make the investments anyway. Judging when that is true needs a strategic decision in partnership with the rest of the organization accepting increased investment for a first-mover advantage even at the risk of cost and time overruns.

Trough of disillusionment: As discussed above there is somewhat of an inevitability that most early technologies will not live up to the hype – this may be because early tools are not mature and need a lot of investment to adapt to internal systems, the potential use was exaggerated or not understood, or technical difficulties create tech stack friction and roadblocks to implementation. The disappointment leads to a wave of scepticism as excitement wanes and funding potentially dries up. The more explicit the strategic decision to invest accounted for the potential of failure, the easier it is for the CTO to assess if the investment is ‘buzz tech’ that will naturally die off  – at least for the time being – or if it is a valuable solution that needs more investment and longer time to mature. If the latter is the case, CTOs need to focus on uncovering what caused the technology to fall into the trough of disillusionment and whether the early learnings allow a better estimate of the success in future iterations of investment. In the case of LLMs, for example, if there is a lack of access to the relevant data and a better understanding of the kind and volume of data needed for success and where it could come from.

Slope of enlightenment: When the technologies that CTOs deem to be a viable solution unexpectedly hit the trough of disillusionment, having a clear strategic vision to start with makes it easier to decide on the next course of action. Often, we are on track to meet our initial goals but have discovered roadblocks that need more time and investment. Better understanding of these can then drive higher confidence plans for the next round of investment.  Sometimes, the goals need to be adjusted as we realize what is feasible or not. In these cases, it is crucial to work with advocates across the company, ensuring these champions have the context and understanding needed to re-shape the strategy and adopt more realistic goals.  This measured approach rekindles interest by showcasing longer-term value and when this is done effectively, it pulls a technology out of the trough of disillusionment onto the slope of enlightenment.

Achieving productivity: While the final stage of the Gartner Hype Cycle is the ‘Plateau of Productivity’, this isn’t the time for CTOs to class their job as ‘done’. For any new technology to be classed as successful, it needs to constantly deliver tangible outcomes and value. In short, it needs to help solve real-world customer problems while helping to grow the business. To truly realize the value of the technology, CTOs need to consider what broader impacts it can have on the company’s roadmap. Often, success in one area can imply opportunities elsewhere. Broadening the strategy to replicate the success in other areas can pay off with only incremental investment. CTOs need to evaluate initial performance metrics and consider how the productivity of the technology can be maintained and spread further by embracing new capabilities and integrations, or indeed if it may be time to retire a solution that is superseded by something new.

As the pace of technological innovation continues to accelerate, racing to be the first adopter to stay relevant and competitive presents CTOs with opportunities and challenges. While it’s crucial to stay curious, be agile and nimble to embrace change, it is important to ensure new technology drives internal innovation, removes siloes and maximises the return on investment as the company explores new avenues to unlock productivity to its full potential.

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