The relevance of technology as a key driver in the fitness industry is growing on many levels. In 2016, however, it will be less about the shiny new thing and more about how technology can be applied in ways that result in meaningful innovation and business enhancements. Competitors who figure out how to leverage technologies in the new year are going to start leaving others behind.
Early success stories like self-driving cars which are secretly being developed by Google and Apple, can propel technology to a peak of inflated expectation. The next stage is the trough of disillusionment, which this year is where augmented reality sits. Finally, we come to the stage of the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. In 2016, this slope is going to start getting climbed as brands begin to make real-world applications of technologies resulting in long-term innovation which will fuel an expansion of the market.
Innovation is the most powerful long-term driver of economic growth in any industry, and health and fitness are no exception. But it is only sustainable when companies convert new ideas into commercially successful products and services. Therefore, sensors, for example, are only relevant to the extent they can meaningfully impact consumer experience resulting in enhanced business models; otherwise, they are just another “new” thing that doesn’t make the impact they could.
As Leslie Kwoh wrote in her Wall Street Journal article "You Call That Innovation?", "Innovation is in danger of becoming a cliche if it isn't one already.” In the health club business, with few exceptions innovation has become divorced from its essence. Many use the term to describe activities which are hardly innovative at all.
Why is this the case? Because innovation is hard, and the latest technology isn’t enough by itself. We have to learn how to use it best in our businesses and for our customers. In 2016, the fitness industry will begin to digest technology in practical ways that start to impact business models and underscore tangible business results that go beyond the "cool factor."
Today, many entrepreneurs debate whether innovation is derived from technology breakthroughs or customer needs. In both cases, it’s the wrong argument. Those who argue that technology drives innovation will cite Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, two historical figures with credibility on the subject. Ford once said, “If I asked customers what they wanted they’d have said faster horses.” And Steve Jobs was famous for saying, “It isn’t the customer’s job to know what they want.”
The middle ground, which many companies miss, is the enormous advantage of understanding what problem the customer needs to solve. This is the lens we must apply to technology in the fitness industry and one that thoughtful operators will increasingly seize in 2016. Henry Ford made a big bet that customers wanted an automobile. The problem was that few could afford one. Steve Jobs believed that music fans wanted to bring their music with them, but none of the available options were attractive.
Understanding the customer's problem helps to dramatically improve the odds of successful innovation. Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, underscores this point when he encourages innovators to understand the jobs a customer needs to get done. When Apple launched the iPhone we all understood that this was the way to carry one digital device instead of a separate phone, music player and organizer.
Organizations tend to spend too much time on product development and not enough time on customer development. Innovation should be your goal, so look to technology for opportunities to disrupt the current playing field. But make sure that your innovation lines up with a critical customer problem that no one has solved. This is why 2016 will be about more than new capabilities of technologies. Instead, it will be about applying the explosion in technology we’ve experienced in the past five years in ways that wow the customer.
Bryan O'Rourke is an accomplished CEO, strategic adviser, entrepreneur, investor and professional speaker. His expertise in technology, strategy, development, marketing, management and finance has led to a track record of results in fitness and wellness, food and beverage, international trade, technology and franchising. An acknowledged thought leader in fitness, wellness and technology, his articles have been published in a variety of established periodicals, and he has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal and New York times, among other leading newspapers.