Why We Need More PLM Epic Fails

fakegrimlockQuick, what’s the most assured certainty in startup land?  Grossly irresponsible valuations?  Nope.  Grossly profitable exits?  Try again.  How about failure.  Glorious, unbridled, OMGWTFBBQ  failure.  Innovation is an inherently risky affair; pioneering new concepts and ideas requires the willingness to both discard and overcome both mental and physical barriers.  Dear reader, take careful heed of the universal wisdom of FakeGrimlock, legendary robot startup dinosaur.  He advises that if you line up enough failures, they can become the collective foundation for a win.  The cumulative knowledge gained from iterative experimentation manifests true innovation; you have to keep throwing yourself at the wall of impossible until impossible no longer exists.  And the end result is… awesome.  But what does this have to do with Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)?  Currently, very little.  And that’s the point.

Entrepreneurship is arguably more vibrant than it’s ever been, especially with regard to technology startups.   Barriers of entry have never been lower, and support networks grow ever larger, even outside the legendary cradles of The Valley and New York City.  Yet the vast majority of startups are very consumer focused – an unending parade of burrito location services, burrito review aggregators, and ways to recognize and enhance photos of your burritos.  Most of these burrito-centric endeavors fail, but in the aggregate, all these failures eventually translate into awesome.  So many attempted burrito-themed ideas pivot into all sorts of things that are both completely unexpected yet incredibly innovative… and have nothing to do with burritos.  That is precisely why we need more failure in the PLM space, to unleash all that untapped potential for dramatically new approaches.  Sure the vast majority of it will go belly up – but a few will do wondrous things.  But we just aren’t seeing it.  ME GRIMLOCK NOT HAPPY.

The PLM establishment usually takes such an opportunity to illustrate that PLM is inherently complicated, and has to be that way, and all this silliness can’t quite possibly manage to upset the established superpowers.  They have first mover advantage, after all , not to mention a deep wealth of resources, both human and financial.  That’s why taking them head on is rarely advisable or really even remotely sane.  There’s also a further complication specific to PLM.  Current software must coexist with a variety of federated solutions, merely a piece in the ultimate enterprise jigsaw.  And that puzzle continues to grow in size and complexity.

To concede that all PLM innovation from here on out must fit that jigsaw precisely is a conceit, and only what Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma would characterize as a sustaining innovation.  The opposite, a disruptive innovation, will reset the puzzle entirely.  So new solutions are not bound by the limitations of the existing solutions.  But what of all those legacy data models – how would an enterprise migrate such a dramatic and hostile transformation?  The short answer is they wouldn’t.  Disruptive innovations don’t target the existing markets, but markets either underserved, left behind, or entirely alien to the current providers.  Those markets make no financial sense for the current players, and are impractical for them to enter.  The disruptive innovation is a rebirth in essence, starting with small and seemingly insignificant markets and then quickly overtaking mainstream markets, eventually toppling the market leaders.  Evidence abounds that technology is accelerating the pace at which this renewal occurs.  A quote from Parneet Gosal makes this trend quite vivid:

“50 years ago, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was about 75 years, then it became 40-50 years and now it’s less than 15 years and declining. Whoa!”

Whoa, indeed.  But back to the other side of the story.  If all this is true, why are there precious few PLM-related startups?  For one, PLM presents an especially difficult barrier for requisite domain knowledge.  Fully understanding even basic elements of PLM requires considerable exposure to manufacturing environments, engineering, supply chain, and program management, among other disciplines.  Not just from a holistic level, but with discrete understanding of what is happening in the trenches.  That level of knowledge is necessary to understand and identify available opportunities.  Individuals with such domain exposure are not grown overnight, and more importantly are most likely to be comfortably and gainfully employed.  Lucrative employment makes the risk of entrepreneurship (outside of consulting) decidedly less appealing.  So that has stymied the disruption process somewhat… but only for so long.

The market will never demand disruptive innovation naturally, it will have to come from visionaries frustrated or otherwise inspired by known problems.  That was certainly true for Apple and Steve Jobs.  The Henry Ford quote mentioned in that article is appropriate here:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

That’s why we need more epic PLM startup fails – otherwise we may be strapped with horses for longer than we can stand or afford.  It’s the right time for the Third Age of PLM.  NEED AWESOME.