Practice Makes Perfect With Innovation
In the excellent 2001 book Will and Vision, Gerard Tellis of USC’s Marshall School of Business and co-author Peter Golder of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business documented how latecomers to an industry can successfully attack and knock off entrenched incumbent companies, no matter how large and successful they might be. In his new book, Unrelenting Innovation, Tellis looks at the other side of the coin, explaining how successful incumbents can avoid losing the leadership of their industries. After years of research, Tellis has identified three traits of a company’s culture that ensure continued success: the willingness to cannibalize successful products, embrace risk and focus on the future. In Unrelenting Innovation, he details these three traits, then explores the three practices — providing incentives for enterprise, empowering product champions and encouraging internal markets — that create the innovative culture based on the traits.
Who Wants to Be a Cannibal?
In an early chapter of the book, Tellis quotes Howard Stringer, the former CEO of Sony: “Love affairs with the status quo continue even after the quo has lost its status.” Sony invented mobile music with the Walkman, only to let Apple and its iPod take over. The problem facing incumbents is even more complex because, to use Stringer’s terminology, the quo doesn’t visibly lose its status until it’s too late.
Tellis proves convincingly that only a company whose culture enables the cannibalization of successful products will stay on top. Unfortunately, there are myriad reasons why cannibalization is difficult. Kodak is a simple and sad case: It didn’t move into digital photography (which it had already developed!) so that it could continue selling film. Sony’s case is a bit more complex. It was clear that MP3 was the future of mobile music, but Sony had also through joint ventures and acquisitions become directly involved in music publishing and movie production — industries in which piracy is a threat. Sony included safeguards against piracy in its MP3 players, making them less user friendly. Consumers went elsewhere.
With equal depth, Tellis explores in the other two traits of innovative companies the nuances of what might seem as clear-cut directives that in reality are complex and often hampered by not always apparent biases.
In the second part of the book, Tellis describes the three corporate practices that can engender the three traits of innovative companies. The first practice is to provide incentive for enterprise — once again a seemingly simple and clear directive hampered in the real world of business by what appear to be logical considerations. It does make sense, after all, that a very successful company with a large and happy customer base would design its incentives around customer loyalty. Such incentives, however, are not going to spark the innovation and creativity that truly keep customers. Tellis advocates “asymmetric” innovation incentives: strong rewards for success and weak penalties for failure. Understanding the psychology of incentives is equally important. Subsequent chapters cover fostering internal markets and empowering innovation champions.
Each chapter in Unrelenting Innovation is carefully structured, with an explanation of the topic, a series of supporting case studies and a final concluding section. The framework that Tellis has created is an insightful and valuable map for those companies looking to emulate such star names as Apple — or to avoid the fate of Sony, the once-admired innovator that Apple tumbled from its perch.