Over the past few years, I’ve been honored to work on an effort led by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and support by McKinsey & Company to dig into the underlying reasons for the slow pace of adoption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR or Industry 4.0) technologies into the manufacturing industry. Out of this work, the term “pilot purgatory” was coined and is a term that all organizations, regardless of size should be familiar with. Pilot purgatory is an operating model that will slow technological adoption in large companies and kill startups.
Pilot purgatory is a barrier to the successful adoption and modernization of large corporations, but understanding and recognizing this phenomenon is critical for B2B or enterprise-focused startups.
Failing to Scale
A McKinsey study found “While most businesses with pilots believe in IoT’s economic potential, a McKinsey survey in May 2017 found that less than 30 percent of pilots are starting to scale. Eighty-four percent of companies were stuck in pilot mode for over a year and 28 percent for over two years.” The Forum published a detailed white paper that dives into successful use cases.
Pilot purgatory is a barrier to the successful adoption and modernization of large corporations. However, understanding and recognizing this phenomenon is critical for B2B or enterprise-focused startups as well.
Deadly for Startups
Many startups like to tout their number of customer pilots or “conversations” with large companies as proof of early traction. This may be true, but as many startups know, many of these pilots go on forever or never convert to the critical enterprise deployment. This is pilot purgatory as experienced in a startup and it can be deadly.
Avoiding Industrial Tourism
How can startup leaders identity real progress vs “industrial tourism,” as a fried of mine likes to call it? First, the same factors hold for the startup CEO, hold for the large company CEO, and vice versa. Based on WEF and McKinsey work over the past few years, a few simple questions can shed light on your situation.
- Is your customer focused on a business problem/outcome or are they really interested in the technology? Large companies have no problem spending $10,000, $50,000, or more as part of their “innovation landscaping” efforts. This is industrial tourism and unless the project has a high-level sponsor, quantified key milestones / KPI, and a well-defined business case, it’s most likely this is going to be a long slog.
- What is your timeline and budget for deployment if this pilot is successful? Customer problems that are well defined are part of the company’s strategy. If you can solve their pain point in a structured pilot and hit the metrics, they will be ready to buy and scale. No timeline and budget usually mean this is an exploration. While it may be worthwhile to do for customer development or product feedback, just do not bank on the bookings.
- If I spoke with your CEO, are they aware of this pilot and timeline? This is the most important question. If it is a real opportunity, the answer will always be a quick “Yes” and maybe even the better answer of “Would you like to speak with them?” This has led to me having direct conversations with customer CEOs and other C-level executives.
When I share these findings and the WEF whitepapers with my startup friends, they are cautious about asking direct questions, but the consistent feedback has been that once they start asking these simple questions, they quickly know if they on a path of success or looking at more time lost in pilot purgatory. Your commercial, product, and executive team need to be able to make this diagnosis and act accordingly as you ration out your valuable time and investor dollars.
About the Author
Carl Vause has held a variety of senior positions in global technology companies including 3M and Smith & Nephew where he held global P&L responsibility for more than $500M in revenue. In 2013, Carl partnered with Dr. George Whitesides of Harvard University to explore commercial applications for the ground-breaking soft robotics work pioneered in the Whitesides Research Group, in partnership with DARPA. In late 2013, Soft Robotics Inc. was formed to commercialize this research and Carl joined as CEO.
Carl is a thought leader and regular speaker on robotics, AI, machine vision and other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and their adoption across industries. Having worked in both large publicly traded and venture backed startups, a passion of his is the important intersection of strategy, people, new product development and disruptive technology adoption to solve customer challenges. He holds a BSEE from Virginia Military Institute and an MBA from London Business School. He began his career as a Naval Flight Officer in the United States Navy, retiring from the Naval Reserve in 2013.
- Start-up Profile – Veo Robotics
- The Hidden Costs of Autonomous Mobile Robots – And How to Avoid Them
- Considerations When Working With Prototyping Outsourcers
- Flexibility and Manufacturing Productivity: Part 1 – Inflexible Automation and its Consequences
- Flexibility and Manufacturing Productivity: Part 2 – Human Capabilities Overcome Technological Limitations