‘Embracing the status quo as an operating principle is going to put you on a collision course with time.’
When Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2012, it would have been easy to assume that the company had been the victim of more nimble, more digital innovators who had created exciting new products which stole consumer attention and market share.
In fact, for the most part, the innovations that took away Kodak’s hugely lucrative film and processing business came from the company’s own research and development labs.
Kodak invented the digital camera and for a period became market leader, notably building Apple’s first QuickTake camera. However, within just a few years, the business was unable to compete. There was a distinct failure to create sufficiently compelling products, and the company never really escaped its history of chemistry and paper so that it could profit in the new market of unlimited digital images.
Is Kodak alone in this? Hardly. Think of Xerox — inventor of many of the elements of the modern PC. HMV in the UK and Tower Records in the US were, for a period, amongst the biggest players in digital downloads. Microsoft produced the first commercially available tablet computers and many of the world’s first smart phones. Look inside virtually any failing, failed or declining business from the last decade and you are likely to find the origins of the innovation with which it is now battling.
In each case, it is not the idea — which may be quite simple — but rather the ability to bring the product to market in a compelling way which the incumbent fails to grasp.
This breakdown in imagination, whilst not deliberate, is nothing less than a by-product of the company’s success. Once a business learns how to do one thing well, it seems, it learns to actively mobilise against the forces trying to do something new.
Often it is only when the company’s current product line is in severe decline that there is enough energy to effect a change.
How will you react when this happens to you — when you find your business model no longer delivers the returns your shareholders and stakeholders expect? Will you really try to do something new? Or will you seek out other options: perhaps cutting costs or buying a competitor to keep the show on the road for a little longer?
This is the nightmare scenario, the ever-present fear of every CEO.
This is the Unthinkable — that which we dare not contemplate. Our businesses are structured as if to avoid this very question. But it is — equally — inevitable. We know it’s coming sooner or later. So why do so many of us obstinately refuse to think about such an eventuality until it is too late?
Changing this bias — making the unthinkable thinkable — requires people who have spent many years believing one thing to suddenly believe in another. And that transition will feel like the end of the world. Because it is — the end of one world and the beginning of a new one.
Whichever business you are in, the end of the world is coming. So, prepare now.
It takes a certain type of leadership to make that kind of transformation happen, to make it something staff, investors, partners and customers can embrace.
Yet, the largest and best-run companies are often the ones that find it hardest to adapt and to grasp new opportunities, to raise their game against the mostly obvious threats posed by new technologies and competitors.
Of course, the opportunity is for incumbents to free themselves of this suicidal trait. If only the restraining factors could be released; established businesses have many advantages in bringing new products to market including reach, brand, capital and expertise. Small companies are often more nimble than large ones. But not always. Apple is not a small company.
At Fluxx, our innovation consultancy, we’ve sometimes said that we help big companies act like startups. But the truth is we want more than that. We want big companies to act like super-startups — able to do so much more with their ideas than the next bunch of students in a garage or back-bedroom.
It has been our mission to work with some of the world’s largest companies to do exactly that — to unleash the power of large brands to break down these barriers to new directions, ideas and markets.
We have established tools and techniques which make a radical difference. In changing attitudes and expectations, we have been able to make the act of disruptive innovation possible in some of the world’s biggest and most conservative businesses.
In the chapters that follow, we will describe the journey we have followed in solving these problems.
First, we will debunk some of the myths which surround innovation and business development practice: the post-rationalised stories management tells itself, the fake histories of the case study, the desire to keep telling the fable of the leader who can succeed by breaking all the rules.
Next, we will examine some of the counterproductive behaviours we have seen in companies that try, and fail, to do new things, and their deep-seated causes.
At the heart of the problem there is a simple truth: too often management teams are dysfunctional about the future, choosing today’s certainties over tomorrow’s challenges, even when the profits and promise of tomorrow are likely to evaporate without changes. The status quo is preferred, creating a short-sightedness about trouble soon at hand, and a preference for continuing on today’s course, even if it leads nowhere.
Finally, we will lay out what we have learnt about how businesses can successfully do new things.
By turning on its head much of the macho business thinking of today, we have found new ways to construct and manage innovation programmes which deliver real value over business shamanism. These are designed around how individuals and groups really work both in your businesses and in your markets; and they give innovation leaders a realistic way to keep the innovation effort on track.
We know our techniques work, because we have seen them work many times within our clients’ companies. They will work for your business too if you can stick to the principles we outline below.
Once we have understood what is really happening when companies appear to turn against innovation — like antibodies attacking a virus — we will look at what solutions are available to help companies do new things. Which structures work and which don’t? How do we incentivise and manage amid uncertainty? Does it have to be so stressful? How should executive teams be managed in the process? How do we best ensure that we learn from our mistakes?
What we will find is that this is a subject area unnecessarily full of myth and magic. Many of the answers are common sense; it’s just not the same type of common sense you need for the day-to-day management of firms.
Throughout this book, we will attempt to bring to life what we have learnt through our own research and case histories. Often these will need to be obfuscated. Names and circumstances will be changed to protect the innocent — those within companies who did the right thing, or tried to, and still can’t talk in public about their unthinkable actions.
Indeed, it is ironic that the stories which give the truest picture of how businesses adapt to change are rarely the stories which are told. As we discuss later, the art of writing case histories has evolved to a degree where they are no longer works of non-fiction.
We’d love to hear your stories and experiences too. Please do visit unthinkable.info to give us your feedback on anything you have read here.