The Hype Cycle (or, Please, Disappoint Me...)

I work with a guy who spent several years at Gartner, a research firm that tracks the business of technology. Gartner takes special interest in how and when emerging technologies will be ready for companies to lay down bets on them actually, you know…working.

The mojo behind firms like Gartner (and Forrester and Jupiter et al.) lies in their ability to quickly summarize complex technologies and the landscape of options in simple ways that even us ADD marketing folks can grasp. Forrester is famous for their wave and Garter counters with their magic quadrant. What is nice about working closely with someone from this world is that he can take our wacky ideas and thinly stretched plans and give that gloss of professionalism, make them look like we actually know what we are talking about. (I mean, of course we do…and, like, stuff.)

Gartner also lays claim to a model they have dubbed the “hype cycle,” that lays out a typical evolution of the roller coaster of perceptions a promising new technology will face in the market place. The fact that key stages of the cycle bear snark-laden labels like, “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” “Trough of Disillusionment,” and “Slope of Enlightenment” makes it clear that Gartner is not looking to be especially complimentary of the zeitgeist that tends to follow the “next-new-thang” in technology circles. Expectations rise unreasonably fast but give over to a harsh fall the morning after. Disappointment is presumed in this model.

Cynical as it may seem, the hype cycle has proven to be exceptionally prescient since it debuted around 1995. Gartner likes to tout how it was used to predict the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and annual updates of where the latest shiny toys fall within the cycle are anxiously awaited and oft-cited events. Having noodled around South of Market, dabbled in start-up ventures, and stumbled trying to get new technologies into battleship companies, I declare that the hype cycle is real.

I concede, of course, that while real, the basic mass hysteria notion underlying the concept of the hype cycle is not a Gartner original. In fact, what got me thinking a little more about this was the fact that nearly every mention of this idea leads to my Gartner alum colleague quipping that, “EVERYthing follows the hype cycle,” with a smirk revealing that this he is not trying to be especially complimentary of the fundamental order of things.

It is a cynical notion, a lemming rush to unrealistic expectations followed by an almost inevitable plunge into disappointment. The ray of hope in the model comes when cooler heads prevail and find a more reasonable, practical, sustainable role for some of these once-hyped technologies that bring real benefits to consumers and long term value to the shareholders.

The thought that takes me down the rabbit hole here swirls around whether my Gartner pal might be right in the ubiquity of the hype cycle and, if so, whether its underlying jab at inflated expectations applies more broadly as well. To put a finer point on it, we all get excited…we all get disappointed…with everything from relationships to jobs to lottery tickets to unopened FedEx. But…so what? For instance, if you take the sober rational “big company shareholder value” approach to emerging technologies, you never toe the leading edge (let alone rail grind the bleeding edge), you stake claim in being a fast follower, a conservative adopter of technologies that have already proven their value and scale. I get it. Trust me. Even the hippest of technology companies can deliver duds.

But let’s get away from the technology of business for a moment and consider that initial rush of the new. If you run a business funded by other people’s money, then being easily excitable, being one who rushes to the mere possible…these are not traits that likely make you a good steward of outside investment. Fair enough. But say we are talking about our own expectations and dreams and fears AND we grant that we are weak sauce irrational at our core, running up the escalators that would have gotten us there anyway, hoping hype this time will deliver it all, knowing that likely it won’t.  Knowing that statistics tell us beyond a reasonable doubt that we are reading too much in to what could be with that new ________________.  Knowing that we will likely be disappointed.

The Big Honking Question: knowing all that, do I go all eTrade monkey and go for it, or do I go Fortune 100 CEO and…wait it out, catch the things important to me only once they have demonstrably leveled off at the “Plateau of Productivity?” My prose betrays my preference.

My biggest regrets come from making my biggest decisions buying in markets on the Productivity Plateau, picking up the Consumer Reports best buys from among the proven and safe picks…making my decisions based on the roller coaster rides others took. Such acts are safe…transactions. Fair…exchanges, like for like. Such acts are not the stuff of dreams.

But here is the subtlety…and in this is all. The trick, I think, is not in chasing all that is shiny, no more than it is in accepting only the safe. I think it lies in something like knowing that passion and loyalty and commitment and wonder can only come from riding out the whole cycle, placing bets, being there when it is risky so you have a well of value to draw on later. That means getting on eyes open, knowing that the first hill on the roller coaster is always the highest, but also that it is the only one that has a shot at giving you the momentum to get through it all. And that sometimes it won’t. Fair enough. I need to make myself strong enough to handle that.

But, given a choice, get me high. I know it won’t last just like that, but I have to be ok with that.

So, in short…please, disappoint me. Soon. It’s the only hope in the long run.


  1. eTrade monkey?

    No. My dear, it's all about the trunk monkey ;)

  2. Good stuff - might have to borrow the "trough of disillusionment" for our blog. There's lots to say on that subject re: relationships.

  3. I think the "trough of disillusionment" definitely applies to relationships. I'm just a rose-colored wearing cynic. I'm one to leave a relationship when those little alarm bells start ringing, but hope still springs eternal. Maybe I'll meet some hot, smart, funny dude this weekend ;)