Nevermind The Buzz Words: A Hype-Cycle Guide

Author: Luke Smaul of Chakra

Since you are reading this on the Supply Chain Revolution, I suspect my topic won’t need any introduction; The Circular Economy. Promising to address the $4.5 trillion wasted annually in the current take-make-waste consumer model, Circular has gotten much well-deserved attention in recent years.  

It is also adding deep economic dimensions to the sustainability discussion. Sustainability is no longer an afterthought. It is becoming a way to do business. Add to that the supply chain challenges highlighted by COVID and Circular starts to look like a much-needed silver bullet. A silver bullet that can help us herald in the next business cycle. A business cycle led by “woke” executives.

Recently I attend a virtual conference by one of the enterprise software giants. Circular was a focus area covered in the CEO’s opening keynote. Such coverage would typically be cause for celebration. For me, it set off major alarms. The reason? Hype.

I’ve lived through and been on the bleeding edge of hype-cycles before. Digital Transformation being my favorite.  When CEOs put new ideas in their keynotes, it’s a sure sign we are entering what Gartner calls the Peak of Inflated Expectations.

Gartner Hype-Cycle. By Jeremykemp at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This is the phase where new ideas get maximum attention, limited action, and failure rates are high. Programs that do start to show success miss the high expectation sets. These expectations needed to be high to get programs off the ground. Everyone becomes disillusioned.

That’s why Gartner cleverly calls the subsequent phase The Trough of Disillusionment. Interest wanes, starts-ups shake out or fail, and there is renewed focus on ROI.

Thankfully, I’ve weathered a few hype-cycles over the years. There are things you can do now to ensure your idea or program make it through to the other side (AKA The Slope of Enlightenment).

  • Beware of the purist. There often can’t be absolutes when an idea is in this nascent phase. Simplicity and compromise are essential. As Walter Stahel put’s it: “my one-line definition of the circular economy is: enjoying the use of and taking care of your belongings.” Simple
  • Get back to basics. Go back a few years and learn about the underlying principles driving the movement or idea. Another shout-out to Walter, but my go-to book is the Performance Economy.
  • Never mind the buzz-words. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to explain buzz words or jargon. It’s a sure-fire way to find out if they know what they’re talking about.
  • Focus on the value. If you can nail 1,2 & 3, you can then start to understand what the idea might mean to you or your company. Ground that in real dollars and cents, and you will weather the hype-cycle.
I followed this recipe during the Hype-Cycle my other favorite topic: Digital Transformation. I can happily report that it worked...
  • Beware of the purist: In the early days, Digital Transformation was all about the tech. If you weren’t doing something open-source and in the cloud, you weren’t getting on board with the movement.
  • Get back to basics: While the whole industry was focused on the tech, I was recommending The Four Steps To The Epiphany, the foundation of the Lean Start-Up movement. Going back a step in history and seeing how the underlying thinking applies to your industry is a solid hype cycle dodge.
  • Never mind the buzz-words: The Digital Transformation space, to this day, is filled with jargon. The majority of which comes from the open-source community. Kubernetes, Kafka, and Parquet are adorable product names. Don’t mistake the use of them for actual knowledge of the space.
  • Focus on the value: This was the game-changer that allowed Digital Transformation to climb out of the Trough of Disillusionment. Setting realistic expectations that were grounded in ROI allowed people to see the light.

So, follow these four steps, and just like Digital Transformation, Circular can weather the Hype Cycle.

  • This article codifies something I’ve talked about for years, but never sat down to map out. I’ve seen this exact cycle of behavior many times, but one of the most damaging was in 1998-2000 during the so-called “dot-com bust” (I hate that term) when “the Internet” and would-be entrepreneurs were used as fodder by investors to set unrealistic valuations so they could extract massive payouts before an IPO or tossing the hot potato to someone else, who invariably got stained with the shame and ridicule of failure. Without inadvertently creating a mob culture in response, I do think questioning users of the buzzwords and jargon in a non-accusing, constructive way may be the only way of policing things while maintaining an underlying commitment to a positive path forward.

    • Thanks, John.
      Those heady days of the dot-com era are a great example.
      In more recent history, Theranos is a perfect case study of what happens when you can’t cut through the hype.

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