Doug Garnett’s Blog


No Product is an Island: Complexity, Innovation & Copiers

<strong>No Product is an Island:</strong> Complexity, Innovation & Copiers

An insidious idea floats around engineering and design circles — that a perfectly engineered product needs no marketing.

Engineers and design teams love the idea of “product as superhero” — it would make life so much simpler not to worry about all the other things that prevent perfected engineering and design from selling. (It is my sense that this misguided idea subtly underlies the popularity of the “Jobs to Be Done” theories and processes.)

But markets are driven by human behavior and products must succeed in the messy environment of reality — away from the pristine company world in which they were created.

No product can be great enough to succeed on it’s own. A recent conversation with my brother Walt reminded me of this critical truth.

Copiers & Networks

Copier companies were born and bred after World War II when it wasn’t easy to sort out how to live amid evolving corporate needs. Still, for decades the copier was a physical island amid a work area. Then came internal networks and the internet — and every copier company in the world realized they would have to become connected just to stay competitive. So in the 1990s, copier makers started off on a journey to “connect” to copiers to networks.

My brother was recruited into field operations for one major copier company at this time. They had created the physical product for the networked world and offered it to customers. The new copier sold well. All good? Not so fast.

Initial sales success don’t guarantee success. In this case, problems started at installation — problems which motivated the company to hire Walt for the Colorado region. He brought his Microsoft certifications as well as excellent experience setting up and maintaining networks in the Front Range of Colorado.

Connections and Copiers

Copiers had been living in a complicated world of specifications and demand. That world was dominated by four areas:

  • Product. The product must do what is promised — and do even better.
  • Customers. Happily relying on the copiers day after day to make their lives simpler and communication easier.
  • Sales Team. As a consultative sell, the team needed to analyze the customer situation and spec the right set of machines to deliver the values the customers wanted.
  • Service and Support. No copier can run forever without service or support. So these individuals were skilled at analyzing situations and fixing the copier. Before copiers were connected, this involved primarily hardware swapping.

The company my brother worked for had thrived in this world. Their field sales and service teams were superb at the job. They were so good that I expect executives planning to introduce network connected copiers created a SWOT where sales and service teams were declared a “Strength.” This might have seemed to make sense — because they were confident about the challenges they had solved. Except…

Connecting a copier to a network isn’t simply a hardware upgrade. It converts a copier from a standalone primarily hardware product to one dependent on external software and an incredible array of variations possible in the environment in which it is installed

Success Depended on Almost Everything …Except the Product

Let’s assume perfect design and engineering and look at what it takes for this kind of copier product to have succeeded. Putting copiers on networks increases complexity dramatically as four key issues become eight. Consider the world around a networked copier:

  • Product. The product must do what is promised — and do even better.
  • Customers. Customers have the same expectations. Except, their demands have risen because of the hope which comes with network connections while the risk of downtime has increased due to the complexities of their environment.
  • Customer Site & Tech Team. New client side players enter the copier field — onsite experts with the local networks.
  • Sales Team. The complexity of the situation a sales team needed to analyze leapt exponentially by connecting the copier. The new analysis also required experience entirely lacking in a traditional copier sales group. This would become evident NOT by lack of sales, but when installed products fail to live up to customer requirements. In other words, the risk was an unknown amount of customer dissatisfaction.
  • Installers. A traditional copier required some installation — but by comparison it was straightforward. Now that copiers had to network, installation became a critically important, and longer, process. Installers were also the ones most likely to encounter problems if the sales team made errors in their proposals.
  • Service and Support. With a disconnected copier, any failure was inside the machine. Once connected to the network, failures could start far outside the machine. This makes diagnosing and fixing a problem exponentially more difficult. It also means there is no way anyone (copier company OR client) can predict when problems will occur nor how serious they will be when they happen.
  • Training. Any new copier would require training. However, this training was unlike any training a copier company had ever had to do.
  • Copier Company Infrastructure. The field teams needed the ability both to learn and practice as well as to attempt to replicate problems locally (and NOT on the customer site). Yet the company Walt worked for did not do what was critical:  machines in every field office.

The math of these new connections is surprisingly forbidding. With four issues, there are 6 possible connections between issues. With eight issues, there are 28 possible connections — let alone all the triads of influence. It’s no wonder the field operation lost their mojo and that Walt’s employer sold within a few years to a larger company.

Connection is a Key Quality of Complexity in Science AND Business

Traditionally, scientists approached every problem assuming “reduction” would successfully lead to the answer. Reduction means we separate out the variables, solve problems separately, then bring them back together presuming the problem is solved. In science, rigorous analysis is possible and will detect when this approach doesn’t work. Recognizing these interconnected problems led to the development of the field of complexity in science. One key type of complexity in science is that which occurs when variables are too tightly interconnected.

Business also assumes problems are reducible — reducing problems is probably the single most common problem solving reaction in companies. Unfortunately, in business rigorous analysis and near real-world testing are not possible. This makes it quite difficult for companies to anticipate when they will face complexity.

Rick Nason suggests that we use two terms — “complicated” and “complex.” These terms distinguish between the relative predictability that businesses usually face (the complicated) verses the unpredictability and instability of situations which are truly complex. It’s a critical distinction. When complex challenges rise up, those who are highly skilled with the complicated feel a bit like they are dancing drunk — weaving from issue to issue without the ability to predict what will come next.

We Manage the Complicated with Systems

As a startup, the company likely excelled dealing with complexity – solving problems which appeared randomly. Over time, this complexity settled into a pattern and the company shifted to managing with complicated means. This is a very typical pattern.

BY the 1980s, the business with the “old” machines — the standalone copier/printer devices — was quite manageable with systematic approaches. They evaluated customer and competitive needs, then engineered a machine in the United States and Japan, built the parts in China, shipped them to Japan for assembly, shipped the result to regional distributors in the United States and finally delivered and installed it at a customer’s location. All the way through that process, tricky sets of systems had to be managed. Is the engineering in metric or standard? Are customs taken care of at every border crossing? Was the correct currency used? Have the deadlines been managed for every step?

There is a comforting predictability with all these issues — if the planning is done right they will succeed. It

Failure when Confronted by the Complex

This disciplined approach to the complicated (and a failure of imagination) kept the “old” managers from empowering (and paying for) the new managers to build an operation which would succeed as issues grew from four to eight. They never received the resources and freedom they needed to succeed in what had become a complex world.

It’s not surprising. Looking down the list of eight issues a manager sees very large dollar signs – every issue is expensive. Hiring and training new people, retraining existing people, designing ways to demo new interconnected equipment (by definition you can’t demo an interconnected device by itself). At the same time, the world moved to an extended-day business cycle (if not a 24 hour cycle) and supporting that is expensive. Now they needed not only technical people in every city and town to support new and diverse equipment, but sometimes technical people in the middle of the night to support that equipment.

Walt’s company cut corners. They set up one national 24-hour support center so they didn’t have to set up one in every city or every state. They tried to train existing employees to sell and support radical, conceptually new products.  They tried to replace knowledgeable, consultative sales people with printed sales materials and information delivered on the web. And they never invested in sufficient field infrastructure.

When the world reverted to complexity, some companies succeeded but not his.

No Product is an Island

I like this case study because it shows so clearly the need to consider a product within its environment. It shows that many things were far more important than the product. And it makes it clear that networked copiers could never succeed based on product alone — no matter how stellar the design.

All innovation (worthy of the title) challenges existing connections, requires new connections, or reconfigures prior assumptions about relative importance among connections.

So the next time you are preparing to introduce a new product/service or pursue an innovation, right next to the early concepts on the board start drawing the connections surrounding your product both today and after the innovation. No one will succeed if we treat a product as an island..


There are complexity experts who would relegate situations like this to the area of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) — claiming there are “processes” and “procedures” and “training” in existence which would have solved everything.

They are technically correct that the copier situation is related to CAS. But I don’t think these CAS derived procedures would solve it — management, wisdom, and budget do. My experience within CAS and business is that it can lead too quickly into a side-conversation filled with fascinating language and ideas but without solutions.

©2020 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved

Through my company Protonik LLC based in Portland Oregon, I consult with companies on their efforts around new and innovative products and explore what marketers should learn from the field of complexity science. An adjunct instructor are Portland State University, I also teach marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising.

As a specialty, I also advise a select group of clients attempting to bring new life to Shelf Potatoes or taking existing products to new markets. We also produce marketing materials for artists including documentaries.

You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at

Categories:   Business and Strategy, Complexity in Business, Innovation, marketing