How did the startup Harry’s appear out of nowhere to disrupt an $18 billion market and topple entrenched giants Gillette and Schick from their perches? How did some retail newcomers like The RealReal and incumbents like Walmart maintain growth and valuations while so many like Lord & Taylor, Brooks Brothers, MUJI, and J.C. Penney have dropped into bankruptcy like flies this year?
When you ask why large companies have a problem building an innovation proficiency, you get back all the usual suspects: “We have silos.” “It’s nobody’s job.” “We’re afraid of failure.” “It’s unpredictable.” And what do all of these things have in common?
With technology’s modern pace of change, how can companies (and humans) best adapt? In March, I had the pleasure of leading a workshop with Tracey Zimmerman, President of Robots & Pencils, to answer this very question and offer a few potential solutions for today’s executives.
In 1977, James Eyster, then a Ph.D. student at Cornell, published a book that would completely change the nature of the hotel business worldwide. His idea could not sound more boring—unless you saw the impact it would have. It involved the negotiation and administration of hotel management contracts.
In my forthcoming book, Seeing Around Corners (now available for pre-order wherever you buy books), one of the major themes is that a major blind spot for organizations is that they tend to see the world through the lens of their existing industry. There are a lot of good reasons for this, but it can cause otherwise smart organizations to stumble.
Earlier this month, I spoke at the Human Resources Directors Conference in the United Kingdom. At the conference, I shared some material excerpted from my forthcoming book, Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen, about how easy it is for executives to get trapped into an old way of thinking—and the new type of leadership model that is required in today’s highly transient advantage contexts.
In the world of strategy, there’s been a long-held belief in a sustainable competitive advantage—you find an attractive place in an attractive industry, throw up entry barriers, and exploit the advantage for a long period of time. However, in more and more parts of our economy, competitive advantages just aren’t lasting as long as they used to, and companies are having to continuously refresh their competitive advantages as they become irrelevant.
I was recently at a conference with Curt Carlson, a brilliant leader of innovation who for many years ran SRI, the research organization responsible for the invention of Apple’s Siri and many other multi-billion dollar products. The SRI story is one of an astonishing turnaround—when he took over as CEO in 1998, the organization had been losing money for years and was on the brink of having to close its doors. Worse yet, the culture he inherited was described by many as toxic.
We cannot predict the future, but we can prepare in advance. So how do you develop early warning signs that things are about to change in an industry? One technique for identifying leading indicators is envisioning time zero events—concrete events that represent things that could have a big impact on a business.
Among the many myths that corporate types have about startups (whether standalone or of the corporate variety) is that there is some kind of alchemy involved. Sort of “Steve Jobs arrives on a clamshell and the world is changed forever!” They think growing new businesses requires some instinctive DNA that founders are born with and that other mere mortals will never possess.