disruptive innovation

Make yourself obsolete, or someone else will


by Ken Tencer
Originally published as a Special to Globe and Mail Update, Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

With Dyson’s new bladeless fans, generation of kids will be denied the chance to stick pencils through screens to see what happens when they touch fast-spinning blades.

For any other reason, you have to love the British-based company because its innovations are so obvious yet so breakthrough.

  • Safe, bladeless fans that move air without all the rumbling and rattling.
  • Technology patterned after jet engines.
  • Dual-cyclonic vacuums that suck up more dirt, more efficiently.
  • Airport hand driers that actually work.

Why were these products not developed sooner? Did no other company listen to generations of frustrated consumers? Or were the former market leaders simply too afraid to cannibalize existing products and markets by introducing something truly innovative?

Dyson’s success is a lesson to all business leaders: Don’t be afraid to make yourself obsolete, or someone else will do it for you.

For most companies that’s easier said than done. I used these words while co-chairing a recent innovation conference in New York City, and I heard the groans from the audience.

I have heard their thoughts out loud too often:

  • “We are the market leaders. We are too big to fail.”
  • “Our technology dominates the market, no need to worry,” said the buggy-whip maker to his horse.

Too many great companies have disappeared because they resisted change instead of embracing it. We may now be watching the demise of yet another giant, in photography company Eastman Kodak Co. The incredible thing is that Kodak actually saw and invented a future when digital photography would replace film. But somehow it managed to resist it. As analyst Chris Whitmore of Deutsche Bank told The New York Times: “The big story here is that their core business — the yellow box business — got cannibalized by the digital camera, which ironically they invented.”

The “good news” for investors is that Kodak is now soundly and strategically focused on digital-printing technology (in an increasingly paperless world?). I don’t mean to pick on Kodak, as it is not the first company to resist change, and it won’t be the last.

So where do we turn to find an example of an industry successfully making itself obsolete? Look at autos. Car makers recognized it was only a matter of time before the traditional combustion engine model gave way to newer, cleaner technology. So over the past decade they have gradually introduced us to the future, in the form of clean diesel, hybrid and now fully electric engines.

Each of these introductions started small, with expensive pioneering products sold to early adopters. This is how the industry developed its ability to introduce alternative technology, test demand, optimize production, and manage the transition. Today auto makers have a clear understanding of their market and possess the production capacity to ramp up a full-scale transition – fully cannibalizing the old combustion technology – without endangering their revenues.

The car industry didn’t just stay ahead of the curve – it created and managed the curve. If more of Dyson’s vacuum-cleaner competitors had shared that kind of vision, they wouldn’t be sucking air.

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Wisepreneur: An Interview with Ken Tencer

An interview with Ken Tencer by Calvin Bacon, originally published on www.wisepreneur.com.

After reading The 90% Rule, Wisepreneur writer Calvin Bacon had a few questions for innovation expert and author Ken Tencer. Here are the questions followed by Mr. Tencer’s answers.

Calvin: You use the word “audacity” several times throughout The 90% Rule when you discuss entrepreneurial thinking. Is this similar to the risk-taking characteristic that many people think of when speaking about entrepreneurship?

Ken: The definition of audacity centers around the willingness to challenge assumptions and conventions. So, it is not about risk-taking; it is about refusing to accept “what is” as a given. I think that this is the essence of the entrepreneur, “pushing to create a new, better reality”. Without this essential quality of entrepreneurship, we’d be short more than a few of our modern trappings like cars, planes and, of course, Blackberries.

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Is distance learning innovative or regressive?

I recently had the opportunity to guest lecture at a major university. The topic was new media. In the middle of the lecture, it dawned on me that here I was talking about a trend in media that heightened the opportunities for interaction, communication and discussion … but I was talking to a half-empty lecture hall! The other half of the class was either watching me from home or taping me to watch at some later date when they had a minute (I know this because an exam question was going to be based on my lecture).


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