Grab Hold of Growth on the S-Curve or Fall Behind

Companies that don’t innovate risk losing to others that learn, adapt to and adopt new data technologies, according to Columbia University professor and author Dr. Art Langer in the first of a two-part Tech Barometer podcast series on leadership through transformative times.

By Jason Lopez

By Jason Lopez March 10, 2021

The S-Curve, when applied to business, shows the life cycle of a company from innovation to commodity. If a product reaches the end of the curve, it’s time for the firm to innovate and bring a new successful product to market in order to survive. 

Because of today’s acceleration of technology, “the S-curve is shrinking,” said Art Langer in a 2019 leadership talk at the Nutanix .NEXT in Copenhagen. “You have less time to come up with an innovation, less time to enjoy it.”

Langer is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University who teaches business courses, specializing in technology management. He’s the author of “Analysis and Design of Next Generation Software Architectures: 5g, IOT, blockchain, and Quantum Computing.” He also leads Masterclasses for Nutanix, where he shares leadership strategies for IT professionals.

In the first of a two-part Tech Barometer podcast series, Langer said many companies are being too conservative in investing in technologies such as IoT, cloud, and 5g to remain competitive. 

One of Langer’s favorite models is Amazon, which invested at a high rate for many years at the expense of profit. 

“You have to have more things out there than what you will produce,” he said on stage to an audience of global business leaders.” 

He said IT leaders should look to the world of entertainment. When networks come up with new TV shows, “do they all make it? Does anybody think they're all gonna make it? But I'll bet you they know how many have to make it.”


Masterclass Teaches Tech Leaders to Tackle Digital Transformation


Art Langer: There's no shortage of innovation.

Jason Lopez: Art Langer is professor of practice at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Technology Management. He's known for his master classes for IT. Professionals who are eager to lead their companies into the digital future. And he's known for his Art Langerisms, turns of phrases, one-liners, but especially stories and setups that help his students understand what's happening during times of rapid change and innovation and how to lead.

Art Langer: When is the next technology innovation coming? Is it like every Tuesday of the third week of the month? You remember Pee-wee Herman? He said I don't know, I don't know.

Jason Lopez: If I'm directing a movie, I think I know who I get to play you. Who do you think plays you?

Art Langer: Oh, Jack Nicholson. I love Jack Nicholson.

Jason Lopez: I'm thinking Al Pacino.

Art Langer: I like him, too.

If you have people that come to you and say, I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do. The last thing I need in my company is someone who doesn't know what to do, because I don't know what to do, either.

Disruption occurs when a new approach meets the right conditions. You're going to have a risk factor. That means IT must be spending a lot more money than they're spending now.

Let me just tell you my story. I was born three blocks from Yankee stadium. I'm not a Yankee fan I'm a Yankee, and there's a difference.

Transcript (unedited)

Jason Lopez: You're not a Yankee fan?

Art Langer: I am a Yankee, because I was brought up in the Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra era.

A baseball player gets up to the plate and he gets a hit one out of every three times. Does he bat a thousand? No way. He bats 300. What happens at the end of his career? He goes to the hall of fame. I think most of you are trying to bat a thousand. I think you're supposed to deliver on time on budget all the time. If you try to bat a thousand, you're going to be too conservative. I don't care who you are. You'll never develop a strategy. You better come up with a failure rate. You have to have more things out there than what you will produce. Do people come up with new TV shows, movies, do they all make it? Does anybody think they're all gonna make it, but I'll bet you, they know how many have to make it.

Next thing. Nobody talks about this. When I talk about it with CEOs, I get the Nixon look. You remember the Nixon look? It looked like this. It's like, I don't know what they're talking about, but that sounds interesting. Do you remember the S-curve from school? Basically, it said, when you're down here, demand is greater than supply, right? The X axis is time. The Y axis is the process. When demand is greater than supply, where are prices? High. What should you be doing? Risk and spending. If it's a good idea, what has to happen when you get to the middle of the curve? Competition. Supply goes up, prices go down. The market is becoming more equal. People fall out. And what happens when you're up here? You're a commodity. It's over. And what's important in commoditization? No failure rate. You see what's happening here? And by the way, the law here says it always happens. I don't care who you are. The longest S-curve in the world are the mainframe people. They're not retiring anymore. They're dying of natural causes. Next 5 to 7 years on the S-curve. You're going to spend, spend, spend, 5g, redoing your applications. And by the way, if anybody tells you, they don't have the money, you better get out of the kitchen. This is going to cost a lot of money.

Do you know where you are in the S-curve? Do you know where you are in the S-curve? Do you know where you are on the S-curve? You should be ashamed of yourself. Because if you don't know where you are on the S-curve, you don't know what you're doing. What happens when you get to the top of a roller coaster? You come down, right? You pick up speed. Nokia loses 75% of its market share in six months. But here comes the big one. Suppose I tell you that that's the S curve in the year, 2000? That's the S-curve in 2010. And then this is the S-curve today. What just happened to the S-curve? The S-curve is shrinking. You have less time to come up with an innovation, less time to enjoy it. Don't have long parties.

You heard what I said about the S-curve? I think the key thing is, and I'll give you the analogy of a car. I lease a car. I don't, I don't want to own a car. And after two or three years, I drive the car in and it might work, but it doesn't matter. I want the new one. And as I mentioned in my speech, if you look at the Amazon model, it's totally torched the concept that you have to be only vertical. So they're both vertical and horizontal and they're stepping back and you have to let your clients and your customers take you where they want to go. So you put out a functional thing that does something like delivering books. And then all of a sudden you're delivering lots of other things.

Choice, choice, choice, choice, choice. How much choice do you offer to your consumers and your customers? Every one of your consumers wants to be treated like an individual. So what do you got to cater to everyone. In order to do that resources need to be global. And by the way, it is no loyalty. Oh no, no loyalty.

I don't consider Amazon really as much of a technology firm or Uber, they were just people that came up with really cool ideas that were able to cross the road from a core technology to a consumer need. And they foresaw coming.

Security, security, security. We never designed software for security. You know, we created Frankenstein. You cannot protect the existing systems out there. So now we got to go back and we got to fix this crap. And it's a mess. It is a mess.

You remember, 30 years ago, it was pretty easy to steal a car. You know, today it's pretty hard to steal a car. You actually have to put it on a platform and drive it away. So the technology now has made stealing a car pretty difficult because they eliminated the core ways you can do it. So I parked my Audi on the street in Harlem right now, and nobody touches it because it's hard to steal these cars. I think you're going to see that kind of thing happen in technology, but the old ways just won't work.

The world is volatile and you will create vision. The world is uncertain and you will create understanding. The world is complex and you will establish clarification. And finally, the world is ambiguous and you will create agility.

Jason Lopez: Art Langer is professor of practice at Columbia University and director of the Center for Technology Management. We recorded him at Nutanix .NEXT a little over a year ago. And when we started working on this feature, we contacted him for an interview to freshen up the material, but it turns out it's all still good. So we produced that interview into a Q and A about his latest book “Analysis and Design of Next Generation Software Architectures: 5g, IOT, blockchain, and Quantum Computing.” The Tech Barometer Podcast comes to you from the forecast and we invite you to read or listen to many other stories about tech and people in the technology industry at I'm Jason Lopez. Thanks for listening.

Art Langer: Do you know I knew Einstein and I said to him, "you know, everything is relative," and he got all the credit.

Jason Lopez is executive producer of Tech Barometer, the podcast outlet for The Forecast. He’s the founder of Connected Social Media. Previously, he was executive producer at PodTech and a reporter at NPR.

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