How uncertainty can drive innovation

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A month ago, when this editorial was being drafted, the day’s headlines were a catalog of uncertainties. In addition to the bank failures, spreading military conflicts, and tensions over export controls, two branches of the U.S. government were in a surreal debate over whether the globe’s financial leader would honor the debt incurred for the spending it had previously approved.

Uncertainty is childishly simple to find in news headlines. By the time you are reading this, many of the uncertainties I cited will have sprouted branches, or will have been resolved, or will have been eclipsed by crises du jour.

That much is certain. The question is how to operate in an unpredictable world. Studies have shown that even mild, ambient uncertainty can make it difficult to be decisive in unrelated matters.

This human quality is top of mind during the run-up to LASER World of PHOTONICS (LASER Munich). Even discounting the shows co-located with it, LASER Munich will fill six hangar-sized halls over four days. That is not nearly enough time for our editorial team to adequately survey all of the groundbreaking exhibits — even assuming we knew in advance which exhibits fit that qualification. Nevertheless, decisions must be made. Priorities must be struck.

And our task is comparatively easy next to the photonics business executives who must decide what to ship, highlight, and launch in Munich.

Let’s say a company is preparing to unveil its latest product. The possible outcomes for their product’s reception remain in a superposition before LASER Munich opens; all possible receptions exist simultaneously.

The product could be met with overwhelming enthusiasm, attracting a flood of positive attention and substantial interest from potential customers and investors.

The product could receive a lukewarm response, prompting internal handwringing over whether the market or marketing strategy is to blame.

The product could be completely overshadowed by competitors’ offerings, making LASER Munich a costly misfire.

It is not until LASER Munich closes its doors and the product’s reception is fully observed that one of these potential outcomes collapses into reality. Until then, every exhibitor might as well be launching Schrödinger’s cat.

Except they aren’t. A great deal of customer engagement, product design, engineering, and testing goes into the technologies on display at a show like LASER Munich. That expert preparation does not erase the vagaries of the marketplace or show dynamics. Some products and technologies will always shine brighter than others at any given time. The point is that the methodologies underlying the innovation process carry value long after the launch of a particular product.

In fact, based on the immediate reception of a product launch, such methodologies can be calibrated, improved, and tested in subsequent launches. Uncertainty will prevail, but in this context, it merely becomes the fuel that drives the aspiration to innovate, compete, calibrate, and repeat.

We look forward to meeting many of you in Munich to discuss your new products. You can be certain, however, that we will also want to hear what lessons you learned during the research, design, testing, and launch of your latest innovations.

Published: June 2023

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