Tag Archives: disruptive innovation

Innovation: a Need for ‘Patient Urgency’

In corporate innovation, little else matters if your timing is wrong.

Moving too fast killed Ron Johnson’s attempts to turn around J.C. Penney. Johnson plunged too quickly into a wholesale remake of the century-old chain’s stores. He didn’t take time to test alternative possibilities—even though, as the developer of the Apple stores, he experimented with every little detail for months in a mock-up before going to market. Johnson also threw out Penney’s long-standing sales strategy. He got rid of discounts—and alienated tons of existing customers—before validating that his new approach would attract enough new customers.

Moving too slowly killed Blockbuster. It ignored Netflix’s subscription-based, DVDs-by-mail model for years. Then, afraid that it was too late, it bet big on its own version even though it had dire economic and operational implications.

Precise timing, however, is a fool’s errand. Disruptive innovations, by definition, deal with future scenarios that are hard to read and where neither the right strategy nor timing is clear. How can you project customer interest for a product that customers haven’t yet seen? How can you deliver detailed timelines and budgets when new products depend on technology breakthroughs?  The strategy has to emerge over time. The timing has to be opportunistic.

To deal with the vagaries of innovation, leaders at Blockbuster, Penney and hundreds of other large-company innovation failures that I’ve studied would have benefited from a strong dose of “patient urgency.”

See Also: Does Your Culture Embrace Innovation?

Patient urgency is one of the distinguishing traits that John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen identified in their study of 120 self-made billionaires, as reported in their excellent book “The Self-Made Billionaire Effect: How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value.” Patient urgency is the combination of foresight to prepare for a big idea, willingness to wait for the right market conditions and agility to act straight away when conditions ripen.

Sviokla and Cohen found that their subjects were no better prognosticators than other people—“they cannot predict the exact right time to make an investment or to bring a product to market.” They did not, however, sit back and wait. Neither did they just jump in and hope for the best. They learned about the market, made early investments and deals, tested ideas in the market and actively made improvements and adjustments. When the market became ripe, they were ready.

The Sviokla and Cohen finding squares with my research and experience.

Reed Hastings of Netflix, for example, knew from Day One that people would eventually stream their movies over the Internet. He experimented with different versions of streaming video for more than a decade. He repeatedly killed ventures when he saw they would not quite work. When the conditions were right, he moved quickly to transform Netflix into a huge streaming business.

Google’s driverless car program is another great example of patient urgency. As I’ve discussed, driverless cars have the potential to save millions of lives and throw trillions of dollars in existing revenue up for grabs while sending a tsunami of business disruption across multiple industries. Google has methodically developed potentially differentiated technology in this fertile arena while keeping its options open on how to capture the resulting business value.

The problem for most large companies, however, is that neither “we’ll figure it as we go” nor “we’ll launch when the market is right” fit with traditional planning mindsets. Operating budgets hate uncertainty. They demand detailed, time-lined projections of human resources, costs and revenue—even when those demands just yield guesses disguised as numbers. This severely limits experimentation, adaption and risk taking.

To break the organizational tendencies that dampen corporate innovation, here are three ways to encourage patient urgency:

1. Think big. Focus on big ideas that have the potential to build massive value. Develop vivid alternative future scenarios to illuminate how existing businesses might get crushed or, in a kinder world, be transformed because of disruptive innovations. Getting everyone on the same page about the stakes involved will help the organization start earlier and bide its time longer.

2. Structure early investments like financial options rather than full-fledged go-to-market plans. Ideas that could turn into multibillion-dollar businesses do not deserve billions in investments right away. Invest millions, or even tens of thousands, to test and elaborate them. Each stage of funding should focus on clarifying key questions like whether the product can be built, whether it meets real customer needs, whether it can beat the competition and whether it makes strategic sense. The goal is to invest a little at a time to develop the idea while preserving the right but not making the commitment to launch the innovation.

3. Budget for innovation as a portfolio of options. Rather than force detailed projections for individual options, plan and budget at the portfolio level. As I’ve previously discussed, the overall allocation and prioritization of the innovation portfolio should depend on a company’s investment capabilities and competitive circumstances. This limits the overall risk while allowing flexibility to shift investments between individual initiatives based on experimental results and shifting market conditions. The portfolio approach also demands that multiple (potentially competing) options be tested—thereby short-circuiting the tendency to focus on one all-or-nothing bet.

See Also: Innovation Trends in 2016

Patient urgency avoids the large-company tendency to swing from complacency to panic. It loosens the constraints of shortsightedness and inappropriate planning models that lull large companies into thinking incrementally for too long, as Blockbuster did. It also lessens the chances of being late to the game and having to risk everything on a single desperate idea, like Penney, only to have it not pan out.

Where Are the New Wearables Heading?

It’s hard to imagine that Humphrey Bogart became one of the fashion setters of his time by wearing a wristwatch in his films. That made pocket watches a novelty. Since then, wristwatches have been a cool men’s accessory. There were glow-in-the dark watches — until radium was discovered to be dangerous. Other styles have added lunar phases, chronographs, timers and alarms, and don’t forget the trendy but forgotten 1970 Pulsar red LED watch.

Now, is the wristwatch at risk of being replaced by new wearables? The real question in my mind from a risk management perspective relates to our personal habits vs. technological advances. Historically, relying on technology alone to change behavior has been more hope than strategy. People like style, convenience, comfort and practicality, and many old habits are hard to change. How many devices do I need to wear? Will a wearable ever truly be a personal protective device (PPD) in the workplace?

Gadgets like Fitbit or Nike Fuelband do specific health-monitoring tasks that have a cool factor, joining yoga pants and headbands. Well, maybe not headbands anymore, but I’m an Olivia Newton-John fan. Anyway, for my daily walks, I use an app on my iPhone that seems to do very well in tracking my steps.

The real holy grail of wearables would be a simple device that could monitor your blood pressure 24/7 and communicate to you and your medical provider. Now, joining the battle for your wrist, the Apple watch (around $350-plus) is poised for release in April. A companion device with your iPhone, these colorful wrist devices strive to pack all of your wearable potential into one Dick Tracy-like, walkie-talkie-style statement with three colorful base models. Similarly, Android Wear is in the works, with as many as 15 devices packing Google’s wearable tech system anticipated to hit the market by the end of 2015.

Apple admits that users are going to wind up charging the watch daily but has declined to go into specifics. A watch runs on a small battery for a year or more.

Wearables are about to explode into an array of novel, single-function devices. The big question in my mind is something the designers of wearable tech seem to have forgotten: Does the item in question solve a need or make life easier for its user? The fact is that most wrist devices do nothing more complex than that already done on a smart phone.

Look at what happened with Google Glass in 2013 -2015. This $1,500 gizmo fizzled in the social scene although commercial uses, including in medicine, firefighting and manufacturing, seem promising. Besides its nerdiness, Google Glass lost because of legal and privacy issues. The real killer in my mind was when users were dubbed “glassholes.” Google is retooling that invention for another shot at it down the road.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way of wearables is complexity. There may very well come a day when people are decked out from head to toe in technology, but it’s not going to happen unless it’s nearly invisible technology. Consumers don’t buy gadgets, as much as they buy experiences. They buy access to content and services they desire. They buy brands that deliver style and status, social acceptance and recognition. Remember the 2001 invention, codenamed Ginger, that was destined to change the world of transportation? It’s called the Segway.

“Disruptive innovation,” a term coined by a Harvard University professor, Clayton Christensen, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of the market and then relentlessly moves up-market, eventually displacing established competitors.

Wearables could bring dramatic improvement  to health monitoring and safety and assistance, but issues like battery life, transparency and simplicity need to be solved before we can expect real disruptive change like the smart phone brought us.

Over half of the world’s 7.2 billion people use mobile phones, with smartphone users growing to 2.5 billion in 2015. Besides communication and computing, think of the incredible photo and video capabilities smartphones bring to our planet’s inhabitants.

What would more wearables give us?